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ZERO

 

Another fan sign, another show, another practise, another crowd deafening him. Another day of sorting out the quarrels between Minghao and Soonyoung, trying to overturn Chan’s lack of sleep, Jihoon’s overworking habits and dealing with Seokmin’s homesickness, all running on less than three hours of sleep himself. As much as he loves this life, he’s so tired, and needs a break, which he won’t be getting until his contract runs out in five years’ time. He tries not to yawn as he waves to the girl moving down the table to Jun, zoning out as waits for the next fan to move along.


Sometimes, he wonders if this job would be easier if he were alone. He knows full well that his career would be entirely different, that he wouldn’t have nearly as much fun as he does with these boys on his team. Sometimes, though, he can’t help but daydream about a world where he doesn’t have to shove a bunch of dirty clothes on the floor if he wants to sit on the dorm sofa, or take responsibility for Wonwoo’s eleven-year-old internet comments resurfacing, or wrangle Seungkwan out of his heavy dieting. ‘Sometimes’ gets more frequent during heavy promotional periods, when they’re all exhausted and stressed and high-strung.


“Hello!” The fan who had finally finished with Hansol moves onto him, and searches in her bag for her gift. He takes her book with a smile and starts writing the answer to her question. If you weren’t an idol, would you still like to be with the other members? She places a small gold jar-looking object in front of him that glints out of the corner of his eye as he’s writing I think fate would bring us together. He’d seen her give Hansol a headband with kitten ears on it, so he wonders what exactly she expects from him with a piece of tableware.


“Just so you know, I think you have the potential to be the best leader of any group, Coups-ah.” She smiles brightly and looks at him expectantly. He’s vaguely offended at the use of ‘potential’ but takes the compliment anyway.


“Thank you, it’s hard work sometimes.” He says, side-eyeing Jeonghan and Joshua further down the table to make her giggle. He pushes the book back and takes the gold jar-bottle thing.


“How do you want me to use your gift?” He asks, trying to ask what the hell is this in the politest way possible.

“Ah, just take it out when you get home, and do what feels right.” She answers evasively, and bows her head quickly before collecting her book and sliding over to Jun. He waves to her half-heartedly, hands the gift back to the staff member collecting behind them, and forgets about it.

 

-

 

It’s only later that night, or rather early the next morning, when he’s searching through his bag of gifts for the face masks someone had given him, do his hands find the strange gold object again. When he holds it in his palms it rests with an odd warmth not natural to metals, and Seungcheol stares at it in a strange reverie for a few seconds, before dropping it thoughtlessly to root through the bag again. The second the jar leaves his hands, he hears a voice behind him.

“Well, I don’t think that was what she was hoping you’d do with her gift, young man.” He whips around to see a woman who looks approximately seven-hundred years old sitting on the edge of his bed.

“Uh- what?” he manages to get out through his shock and minor heart attack. She tuts and shakes her head.

“I know you live a busy and stressful life, but you have nothing if you don’t appreciate the good things around you. You and your members could all be living very different lives than where you are now, yes? Right now, I think your friends and fans both deserve better than your judgement lends them, hm?”

“H-how did you get in here?” He looks around quickly for cameras, wonders if one of the others somehow convinced their great-great-grandmother to play a prank on him.

“Let’s see, there are twelve of your younger friends, so how about twelve universes, twelve hours in each- will that help you sort things out?”

“I’m sorry, I really don’t understand-”

“Yes, yes, that’ll do. Remember, Seungcheol-ah, you’d better be with them at twelve o’clock, midnight, at the end of your twelve hours- or maybe they won’t come back to this bright life you lead at all.” She says authoritatively, as if that makes perfect sense, as if anything she’s said hasn’t been complete gibberish.

He goes to stand, intending to stride to the door and yell for Mingyu, because if anyone was going to devise something this non-sensical it would be him. He barely makes it to his feet, however, before a dizzying vertigo overcomes him, and he falls back onto his ass, mind quickly sliding into unconsciousness.

 

 

ONE


Seungcheol groans and fights through the drowsiness crowding his mind, tuning into the bustle of noise around him. He must’ve fallen asleep whilst waiting for a performance again, but if no one was calling for him to get up, it’s a no-brainer to give in to sleep and catch a few more minutes before he was due on stage.
Unfortunately, sleep doesn’t return easily, and he’s left to wonder how big this waiting room is anyway, that the noise seems to reverberate around to sound like it’s filled with hundreds of people, and what sort of sofa this was that dug into his back, causing to squirm for a comfortable position. When he feels the surface under him begin to shake with what sounds like footsteps is when he’s decisively shaken out of his doze, and he opens his eyes in confusion only to see some sort of beast walking on two legs, covered in thick fur and about nine feet tall, stomping past him along a metal walkway. Seungcheol sits up so fast his neck cracks, and he goes scrambling away from the open doorway of the small room he’s in, only to go crashing into something that barks at him. He turns around again with a shout as he’s met something that looks sort of like a big dog, only it’s hairless and completely transparent, and tells Seungcheol to ‘Watch it, kid,’ with a rough Busan accent. Seungcheol tries not to scream and nods furiously before scurrying back to the door of the room. When he reaches the metal walkway outside, he can see that the room is certainly bigger than any music show’s backstage room. He’s looking down on a vast food court, the size of a football field, surrounded on each side with walls that are lined with cells identical to the one he woke up in, going up at least twenty floors high. Beings of all shapes and sizes are wandering around between tables on the ground floor, and as far as he can see along each walkway and in each cell, all wearing the same bright yellow clothes that he also finds himself in. The entire place is made of a dark metal, causing the sound to echo dizzyingly, and is lit up with bright fluorescent lights.

He rubs his eyes and leans on the railing in front of him, defeated. This is it. He’s finally had his mental break. They’re going to put him on hiatus from the group for at least a week, Soonyoung will treat him like he’s glass for the next month of dance practise, fans will send him messages about resting well for the next year and his brother will never let him forget the time he started seeing monsters in a futuristic prison because he couldn’t handle the schedule of a pop star.
Before he can fall further into a spiral of despair and panic, he spots a familiar head moving across the foot court, standing out because of his decidedly human frame and familiar stature. Why he’s seeing Jihoon in his delusional dream world he doesn’t know, but he’s not about to pass up the familiarity of human features in this sea of strange creatures. He takes off towards the nearest staircase and sprints down them, trying not to lose his friend in the large space. Thankfully, it’s only two floors down to the food court.

“JIHOON-IE! WOOZI-YAH!” He yells, but his voice gets caught up in the noise of the room. He dodges and swerves around the people moving about, not wanting to annoy anymore Busan dog-people. Thankfully, Jihoon is sporting the bright-red hair he’d had a few years ago, giving Seungcheol something to spot in between bodies. He ducks under the tentacle of a gurgling squid-like being, and finally arrives at Jihoon’s table, where he’s calmly snacking on some sort of food that looks like shredded carboard. He looks up curiously when Seungcheol thuds down on the chair opposite.

“Didn’t know there were other humans in here.” He says conversationally, looking Seungcheol up and down once.

“Jihoon-ah, it’s me.” He looks into Jihoon’s face for any sign of recognition and tries not to fall back into his spiral when he finds none. His breakdown-apparition-friend-figure not recognising him is just ideal, really.

“Have we met?” He asks shortly.

“Yeah.” Seungcheol sighs. “Where the hell are we, anyway?”

Jihoon squints at him suspiciously. “How do you not know where you are? Get a hit to the head or something?”

He suddenly remembers his fall to the floor back in his bedroom, and frowns. “Yeah, maybe. I don’t know. You want to tell me anyway?”

“We’re in Freeway Prison, in Galaxy 150526. I suppose you don’t remember what you did to get put here, either?” Jihoon continues to pick at his food-cardboard as if Seungcheol’s amnesia and his own imprisonment in actual outer space is of no real importance to either of them. Seungcheol just stares at him.

“It doesn’t matter. You have perfect timing. I’m making an escape tonight, and the only ships that come to this place are dual-regulated.” Seungcheol stares some more, and Jihoon looks straight back. “They need two pilots of the same species? You do know how to fly a pod-ship, right?”

“Uhhh… yeah…”

“Good. I’ve got the whole plan figured out, just follow close to me and I’ll get us both out. Gather your belongings and meet me here in six earth hours. We have an opportunity when the guards rotate out.” He unstraps one of the four watches he has on his right wrist and deftly attaches it to Seungcheol’s own. “Enjoy your meal.” He gets out of his seat and walks away, and when Seungcheol looks down, he sees an identical cardboard-shreddings meal in front of him, and the tray that had been in front of Jihoon has disappeared. As appetising as it is, he’s not hungry enough to try the strange space-prison food. Jihoon is long gone by the time he looks up again, so Seungcheol stands slowly and heads up the stairs to find an empty cell he can nap in.

 

-

 

He sleeps for some time after lying down and panicking internally about his situation. Disappointingly, he finds he’s not back in his bedroom when he wakes up, so he spends the rest of the time wandering around, trying to non-conspicuously take catalogue of the variety of species his brain has apparently conjured up. Or perhaps it hasn’t, and a witch-woman has literally sent him into space because he wasn’t being grateful or what the fuck ever she said. That possibility is far more alarming and out of his control than a mental break, so he’s trying not to think about it.

Jihoon arrives back at their table exactly six hours later, and motions to Seungcheol to follow him. Despite the passage of time, he’s heard no announcements or signals marking meal times or drills. He wonders if all space-prisons are this unregulated.

Jihoon leads him up the stairs- all of the stairs, Seungcheol tries to count them but gets light-headed around the twenty-seventh floor and stops- and into the cell at the far edge of the building. The noise reverberates particularly loudly here, bouncing off the metal walls. Jihoon pulls back a box full of metal parts from the corner of his room and reveals behind it a small part of the metal wall that’s been clawed out, revealing a hollow gap and some huge pipes running through the space. He slips through with ease, calling for Seungcheol to hurry up and pull the box to after him.

For what feels like a year they crawl and climb around a maze of pipes, and Seungcheol wonders how no one hears the noise of their shuffling clanging around the construction. Eventually Jihoon seems to find what he’s looking for, and pulls a tool out of his belt, prying away at a locked door, presumably used for maintenance. He eventually clicks the door open, peeks out, and gestures for him to follow. They enter an empty, silent corridor, and he follows Jihoon as he briskly but silently leads them away from the broken maintenance door. In the other direction, Seungcheol spots a large square indented in the wall.

“That’s the main door. There’s supposed to be guards on it at all times, but they’re sloppy on days when there’s no new prisoners or new releases. Come on, quickly.”
They walk for a while without interruption, until all of a sudden they round a corner and come face to face with a tall woman in protective clothing, presumably a guard. Seungcheol yelps in surprise, both at her sudden silent appearance, and the number of extra arms she has coming out of her back. The woman also looks at them in shock and unholsters what looks like a remote control, yelling at them to freeze, but before she can raise it to them Jihoon has grabbed her wrist and pulled her forwards, kneeing her in the stomach. She grunts in pain but roughly shoves him flat to the ground, pointing her device at his head. Before Seungcheol can blink, Jihoon has his leg around her arm, bending it awkwardly until she’s forced to drop the small box. She pulls at his leg, causing him to flip and roll along the ground, but he’s still able to grab the object first, promptly directs it at her and presses down. A blue light shoots at her and the woman falls to the ground, unmoving.

“JIHOON! Did you just kill that woman?” Seungcheol shrieks, looking wildly between the body at their feet and Jihoon, still holding the death-remote. Jihoon looks at him as if he’s an idiot.

“You really know nothing about this galaxy, huh? It’s just a stunner, she’ll be fine.” He pockets the device and continues to stride down the corridor.

“Where did you learn that?” Seungcheol splutters. If he’d had any doubts until now that this isn’t his Jihoon, it’s confirmed now- Jihoon may be seriously flexible, but his Jihoon wouldn’t be this unconcerned about using weapons and his apparent martial arts skills on citizens. Even if they were alien citizens guarding them in space-prison.

“I’m a pirate, it comes with the job.” He admits easily. Right, he’s a space-pirate. Of course he is. “You’d better hurry up- her species are very resistant to stunners, she’ll be up and calling the alarm within a few minutes.” He opens a door to their right and begins to jog ahead of Seungcheol into the room.

The room turns out to be a vast hall filled with what Seungcheol can only assume are space-ships- honest to God space-ships, in varying different sizes and models, but nonetheless ships that he told Jihoon he could fly in space, and he would feel pretty bad right now about lying to him earlier if the sound of a shrill alarm bell didn’t make him jump out of his skin.

“C’MON!” Jihoon yells in front of him, as guards burst into the doors at both ends of the hall. Seungcheol runs to the ship Jihoon has chosen and climbs up into the door he’s pulled down while the other covers his ascent by shooting his stunner at the approaching guards, taking down three or four before Seungcheol even gets to the top of the stairs into the ship. Either space-pirate Jihoon has excellent aim or the guards are absolutely inept. Jihoon sprints up after him and hits a button that brings the stairs up into the ship, closing them both off from the noise of the outside. Jihoon manhandles him into a chair at the front of the small ship, not giving him the time to take in the interior or confess to the lie he told earlier.

“It’s pretty clear that you’ve never been in one of these before, but luckily for you, even an idiot can pick it up.” Jihoon says, pulling his chair up to the console. “Just hold your feet on those peddles and hit that button when I tell you to.” He quickly hits some of the switches and fiddles with the controls. Below them, there’s a clanging noise on the door of the ship as the guards attempt to force it open.

“Okay- NOW!” Seungcheol blindly hits out at the button Jihoon had indicated, and suddenly the ship lurches forwards at an alarming speed, taking off over all the other space-crafts in the room and headed straight towards the large metal wall at the other side.

“AHHH!!” Seungcheol yells, while Jihoon smirks, and presses further on the lever in front of him. Seungcheol braces himself for the impact of their vehicle with the wall, only he doesn’t need to- the wall opens up a second before they reach it, and the ship soars out into the vast expanse of space, the wall shutting behind them as quickly as it had opened. The ship is still travelling at an unreasonable speed, but Seungcheol looks out into the darkness of space, the sight littered with lights and planets and distant stars, and thinks that nothing could make him more breathless.

 

-

 

After a long while, the ship slows down, and Jihoon tells him he can take his feet off the pedals. He obliges, and the ship slows to a stop, just hanging in the middle of actual outer space.

“We’re outside of Galaxy 150526 now, they hold no claim over us.” Jihoon says, standing up and stretching, groaning as something in his back pops. “Even though I did all the work, good job partner.” He pats Seungcheol on the back a little condescendingly and wanders into the back of the ship. Seungcheol just stays in his seat, still looking out at the view, dazed. When Jihoon comes back, he’s changed his clothes into some sort of robe that looks much comfier than their prison uniform.

“We just escaped a space-prison,” Seungcheol says, blankly, “and you’re not even phased.” Jihoon just shrugs nonchalantly, reading the screen in front of him that’s not written in any language Seungcheol recognises. Seungcheol swings around, finally tearing his eyes away from the floating structure ahead of them that looks suspiciously like a space-school.

“So I’m going to tell you how I got here, and maybe you won’t think I’m crazy.” Jihoon just levels him with a look.

“In the world that I came from, we’re both K-Pop stars, Jihoon-ah. We’re in the same group, called Seventeen, and we’re doing okay, you know? Fairly successful? We had a fan sign yesterday, and this fan gave me this golden thing that I think had a witch hidden in it, because last night she just appeared in my room and told me not to judge my friends so much or some bullshit, and next thing I know I’m in a space-prison and you don’t remember me and I’m very, very far from home.” He finishes in a huff and tries to will down the tears he can feel springing to his eyes. Maybe the shock is finally setting in.

“Sounds like a genie to me.” Is all Jihoon says.

“Huh?” Seungcheol is baffled. This Jihoon makes a lot less sense than his friend Jihoon.

“Someone gave you a lamp, and out popped a genie. Doesn’t your earth have legends about that? She’s probably granting the fan’s wish though, to test you or teach you a lesson, rather than your wish.” He says, in complete seriousness. “Did she tell you to do anything? Other than not judging your friends?”

“Uhm, she said something about… being with them at midnight, or they wouldn’t come back- but we’re in space, do you guys even have time in space? God knows what that means.”

Jihoon rolls up his sleeve and looks at one of his remaining three watches. “It’s a few minutes to midnight right now, by Korean standard time.” Jihoon looks up at him. “How many other friends are in this group?”

“There’s thirteen of us.” Jihoon cringes.

“Well, at least you’ve found me.” Seungcheol tugs at his hair anxiously.

“No, she said something about- twelve universes- maybe she’ll come back to send me somewhere else at midnight? To find someone else?”

“Guess we’ll wait and find out.”

So they wait, drifting in space, watching the stars.

 

 

TWO

 

This time when Seungcheol wakes, he can feel a comfortable bed under him and hears no disruption in the surrounding room, but sits up with urgency nonetheless. He’s in a spacious bedroom, with expensive-looking furnishings but minimal decorations. It’s completely quiet, and he’s alone, so he lets out a long breath and starts muttering to himself nervously.

“Much better than space-prison, at least, maybe there’s actual food in this place. Another member must be here though, if I’m really stuck in this crazy genie mission-” He’s interrupted by a groan from beside him, and the lump in the bed next to him shifts. Seungcheol jumps out of his skin, promptly falling out of the bed and onto the floor. He sits up to peer over the side of the bed cautiously, only to see Jihoon raising his head from under the covers.

“Coups-hyung?” He says blearily, squinting at the top of Seungcheol’s head. “What the fuck?”

“You remember me?” Seungcheol asks tentatively.

“Yeah, of course- why were we in space? Where are we now?” Seungcheol can’t help it- he leaps across the bed to pull Jihoon into a crushing hug, but quickly pulls back when he feels the boy stiffen up at the surprise contact.

“Different world, apparently. I think I prefer this one so far.” Seungcheol quickly moves away and starts to look through the drawers beside the bed, trying not to reveal how relieved he is not to be alone this time.

“So I didn’t dream it all? A genie is sending you through space and time to gather the group back together?” Jihoon looks a little dazed but he’s staring at him intensely for answers. Seungcheol doesn’t mind it- the other Jihoon seemed frankly disinterested in him. He never even asked for his name. Having his own Jihoon back- dark hair and all- immediately puts him more at ease.

“Yeah, it seems so.” Seungcheol comes up empty handed from the drawers he’d been looking through, sparsely littered with some socks and belts only, as if the house was barely lived in. The wardrobe does have some coats and shoes in, belonging to someone a little bigger than him. He leaves them when he finds nothing helpful in the pockets.

“Fancy coming to explore the house with me? If we’re trespassing on someone’s property, I think we should get kicked out together.” Jihoon snorts and crawls out of the bed, which is when Seungcheol notices his clothes. He’s in a smart dress shirt and slacks, slightly creased from being in the bed. When he looks down, he’s in similarly nice clothes. Jihoon catches his line of sight and inspects himself too.

“Maybe it’s a hint of what we need to do? They’re not exactly appropriate for sitting around at home, so we probably need to go somewhere to find the next member.” Again, Seungcheol sent thanks to his genie overlord woman that she had allowed Jihoon into this world with him- he was observant and sharp, and a good decision-maker.

“Maybe we really are going to get kicked out then.” Seungcheol muses. They both head over to the bedroom door, and Seungcheol opens it cautiously.

What they find is an ordinary, empty house, barely lived in much like the bedroom, but clearly owned and furnished by someone with money. The bathroom has soap and shampoo and toilet paper but no other sign of real life, and in the kitchen, they find six wine glasses, two plates, a bowl, and a pair of chopsticks. The fridge is similarly bare.

“Hyung.” Jihoon attracts his attention and picks up a sloppy pile of papers from the countertop. He shows them to Seungcheol who quickly identifies a brochure and three lanyards that say Family/Friends of Kim Mingyu on them, with the logo for Seoul Fashion Show. “I think this is a pretty clear hint.”

According to the brochure, the show starts in an hour, so Seungcheol figures Mingyu won’t be needing these lanyards anyway.

 

-

 

They have the time of their lives in Mingyu’s Aston Martin, speeding down the highway until Jihoon reminds him that getting arrested for speeding and theft would not be conductive to finding Mingyu. Seungcheol feels a little smug when they arrive at the venue with minutes to spare, until he realises the start time turns out to be just the time the doors open, and they’re going to have to mingle for a few hours and try not to be caught out by anyone associated with Mingyu before the damn show actually starts. Assuming Mingyu was one of the models, he was likely to be preparing backstage before the show rather than attending the polite blend of guests in the pre-party, but Jihoon quickly shoots down his suggestion they sneak backstage.

“It’s not about finding him quickly, it’s about finding him and being with him when it strikes midnight. If we find him early and immediately get kicked out of the show, we’ll just make it harder for ourselves later on.” Seungcheol nods, trying to make a face that says I was definitely thinking the same thing, and resigns himself to a few hours of avoiding eye contact until the next stranger came up for polite but very boring conversation.

 

-

 

When they finally get called through to the auditorium, everyone else seems to be headed for assigned seats, so he and Jihoon have a scramble of looking through the details of their lanyards whilst trying not to look completely out of their depth. They find their seats, which turn out to not be their seats, and quickly move into the correct ones with a lot of bowing and apologising to the stern-looking young designer that was staring them down.

After the opening performance, the show is long and boring and eventually Seungcheol stops feeling his stomach jump every time a new male model comes out. It still gives him a little jolt when he finally sees Mingyu, strutting along the walkway in a sharp pink suit, skin gleaming and gait strong, like he was born for it. He remembers the one time they had seen Mingyu do this back in their world- his invite to Seoul Fashion Week had been a big deal for the group, and they’d nabbed front row seats. Their manager had firmly told them not to be disruptive or distract Mingyu while he was on stage, but their presence alone had made Mingyu’s mouth twitch when he reached the end of the walkway and made eye contact with Seungkwan, who couldn’t repress his huge proud smile.

Mingyu comes out twice more before the show ends, and finally the closing performance marks the end of the show. The host announces the after-party is being held in a room further into the building, and Seungcheol is already exhausted. He doesn’t know how these rich people have the stamina for all these events- he’d take performing a full concert over this any day. Jihoon has no patience for his complaints and simply drags him to his feet, following the crowd of people into the next room. It’s a bigger room than the first one, and darker, lit with sexy lighting and exciting music that encourages the guests to take full use of the dance floor.

“The models will probably be coming to this party, right?” Jihoon scans the room before turning to Seungcheol. “We should hang around and wait for Mingyu to show up.” Seungcheol nods and leads them to a table for two.

“The party will probably go on until the early hours of the morning, so we can approach him just before midnight. That should be enough to pass the conditions.” Seungcheol muses. He can only hope it will be as straightforward as it seems.

They anxiously hang around for a while before Seungcheol finally spots Mingyu enter the party, who is immediately surrounded by a group of people that are clearly designers. He can tell they’re praising him, because Mingyu has that cocky look on his face Seungcheol is so familiar with. Usually, it’s followed by somewhat nervous giggling and something stupid coming out of his mouth, but apparently this Mingyu has learned to control that for the sake of his image. The pair sit and observe him for a while. Neither of them have watches or phones, but the minimalistic oversized clock in the centre of the far wall tells them they still have a few hours before midnight when their plan starts to unravel before their eyes.

“Hyung, Mingyu is a supermodel.” Jihoon says, wide-eyed, as if he’s realising this for the first time. Seungcheol looks at him, mildly concerned.

“Yes…” He says slowly, turning around to follow Jihoon’s gaze laid on Mingyu, who is sat at the bar with a pretty woman talking to him.

“What do models do other than model?” Jihoon asks, but it sounds more like a rhetorical question.

“Uhm… I mean, some are singers, or actors, most do other jobs too-”

“They get laid, Hyung.” Jihoon snaps. “They sleep with other attractive people. They leave parties with celebrities to have sex, maybe even before midnight.” Seungcheol whirls around again to see the woman has a hand laid delicately on Mingyu’s arm, leaning into his space.

“Has Mingyu even had sex before?” Seungcheol asks, alarmed. Jihoon stares at him incredulously.

“Why do you think I’d know? And why is that important here? This is a different Mingyu, and he-” Jihoon abruptly stops, and Seungcheol turns again to see the woman walking away from Mingyu, leaving him sipping on a colourful cocktail, alone for the first time that night. “He sent her away.”

“I knew we’d be fine.” Seungcheol says, with confidence. “Mingyu wouldn’t-”

“Because he doesn’t want her.” Jihoon interrupts. He’s is starting to get a crick in his neck from turning around so much, but this time, his gaze lingers. Mingyu has moved to the other side of the bar, to sit next to a man who looks suspiciously like Jeon Jungkook, and calls the bartender over to get them both another drink.

“Oh my god.” Seungcheol murmurs, staring at the couple.

“We need a new plan.” Jihoon says urgently. “What do we do if they call a cab to leave?”

“Hide in the back of the car and stalk them home.” Seungcheol answers instantly. Jihoon levels him with a glare.

“You’re really trying your hardest to get us arrested, right? That’s never going to work, idiot.”

“Then, we tail them in our own car, and just burst into the room right before midnight!”

“You mean Mingyu’s car? You want to follow Mingyu in his own stolen car?” Jihoon shoots back with increasing frustration.

“Well I don’t see you with any better plans, Jihoon-ah!” He replies hotly.

“Go and flirt with him.” Jihoon says quickly, eyes back on Mingyu over Seungcheol’s head.

“What?” Seungcheol is dumbfounded- how is this idea better than any of his?

“Jungkook just left- now’s your opportunity, go over and flirt.” Jihoon pushes at his shoulders to hasten him out of his chair.

“Why me?” Seungcheol splutters.

“You’re clearly more his type. Go!” He shoves his again, so hard Seungcheol nearly falls out of his chair, so he reluctantly obliges and starts walking over to Mingyu before Jihoon can draw any more attention to them.

He approaches Mingyu’s broad back with apprehension. He’s dressed down into a simple black shirt and dark blue fitted trousers, and Seungcheol has never considered Mingyu intimidating in his life until right now, apart from that one time he obliterated most of Seungcheol’s teammates in a game of tag. He gulps before sliding onto the stool next to him and calling the bartender over. Mingyu turns to face him, and much like with Jihoon yesterday, Seungcheol finds no recognition there.

“You did really well out there.” He starts, hesitantly. “You, erm- really caught my eye.” Mingyu raises an eyebrow and quickly looks him up and down, and Seungcheol puts out a hand for him to shake. “Choi Seungcheol.”

“Thanks. Kim Mingyu. Are you here with one of the models?” Seungcheol laughs, a little strangled, and tries to subtly tuck his lanyard into his shirt as he says,

“No, actually, we’re uh- friends with one of the talent scouts- well, more like apprentices really, here to learn the trade, you know-”

“We?”

“Yeah-” Jihoon won’t be happy he’s been pointed out, but he was the one who pushed Seungcheol into this anyway, “I’m with my friend.” He spins on his barstool to point out

Jihoon, who tries to look like he wasn’t intensely watching them, and waves casually. Seungcheol barrels on. “Anyway, we- uh, I mean I was wondering if you were interested… in… hooking up…” He resists the urge to slap his own face hard enough to knock himself out.

“We?” Mingyu asks again, like some dumb parrot, and Seungcheol looks at the way he eyes up Jihoon, turns back to Seungcheol and looks at him with a smirk, and looks again at Jihoon who stares straight back, unaware. Mingyu seems decidedly more interested now than he had been when Seungcheol first approached. “If both of you are asking, then I’m down.” The statement is so decisive that there’s really only one answer he can give.

“Yeah, we are.”

Mingyu smiles, showing his canines. “Meet me by the back door.” He puts a few thousand won on the bar as the bartender finally comes over and slides from his stool, striding towards the far door. Seconds later, Jihoon approaches him, alarmed.

“What the hell did you do?” He looks about a second away from wrangling Seungcheol’s neck.

“I did what you said!” Seungcheol defends, “We’re going home with him.”

“We?” Jihoon shrieks.

“Yeah, we.” He repeats, grabbing Jihoon’s hand and moving to follow Mingyu. He can feel Jihoon huffing beside him.

“If I have to kiss Mingyu, I’m going to kill you.”

 

-

 

The ride to Mingyu’s house was exceptionally awkward, in Seungcheol’s opinion. Mingyu had just been unlocking his car when he’d noticed the Aston Martin in the dark a few spaces down, and Jihoon had to distract him from going over to inspect it closer by clutching his hand quickly and introducing himself in a sweet voice that almost makes Seungcheol gag. Mingyu smiles at him and ushers him into the car, getting the door for him as if he’s a gentleman or something ridiculous. Seungcheol supposes he’s left to take one of the back seats and spends the car ride in near-silence as Jihoon and Mingyu exchange mild conversation and light flirting. He feels a little like the child of two parents who seem to forget he exists.

On arrival, Mingyu thankfully doesn’t attempt to go into the garage, presumably because he thinks his expensive Aston Martin is still housed there, and just parks on the driveway. He shoots Jihoon a dark look that Seungcheol feels inappropriate just witnessing, and apparently Jihoon feels the same, because he quickly opens the door and blurts something about Mingyu’s beautiful house, as if they weren’t here just hours ago. Once they’re through the front door, Mingyu has barely hit the light switch before he’s pulling Jihoon close, putting a hand in his hair and leaning down-

“LET’S MOVE INTO THE BEDROOM!” Seungcheol blurts, his voice excessively loud in the space, and he cringes. Mingyu shoots him an annoyed glare while Jihoon looks at him and gestures a hand across his throat. Seungcheol is so dead.

“Yeah, that’s a good plan.” Mingyu says, taking Jihoon’s hand and leading him into the bedroom the two had woken up in only hours ago. Seungcheol follows hastily, wildly trying to come up with ways to stall Mingyu until midnight, which must be at least an hour away. When he enters the room, the other two are way ahead of him, and Mingyu is sitting back onto the bed and pulling Jihoon into his lap, who looks like he would turn to stone if he were any more tense. Mingyu must feel this when he puts his hands on Jihoon’s hips, as he stops.

“Are you okay? Is this what you wanted?” He glares at Seungcheol in the doorway, presumably for cajoling Jihoon into this (oh, the irony of it being Jihoon’s plan all along) before comfortingly stroking Jihoon’s side.

“I’m absolutely amazing, Mingyu-ssi, never better.” Jihoon replies aggressively, and puts his hands on Mingyu’s shoulders as if to prove it, though he looks more like he’s trying to give him a death grip.

“You can call me Hyung, if you want. I’m probably your Hyung, right?” Mingyu again tries to lean up to kiss him, and Jihoon only shoves him down roughly so he’s lying flat on the bed under him. Thankfully, Mingyu takes this as an act of foreplay rather than rejection, and hums appreciatively as he hits the pillows.

“Oh, you like it rough?”

“Oh, yeah, Hyung,” Jihoon says, and reaches into the drawer beside the bed, pulls out one of Mingyu’s belts, “I sure do.” He uses his hands to pin Mingyu’s wrists above hishead, and starts wrapping the belt around his wrists, attaching them to the bars of the headboard. Mingyu lets out a groan and shifts his weight under Jihoon, though Seungcheol sees him wince a little when Jihoon pulls the belt tightly. Jihoon presses and pulls on the restraint, to make sure Mingyu is secure, and promptly slides off the taller boy, wiping sweaty hands on his trousers. When he’s back on his own two feet, he turns to face Mingyu with his hands on his hips, who looks up at him confusedly.

“To be frank, Mingyu-ssi, I have no interest in your sex life, but I do know you can’t let people go around tying you up without a safeword. Hopefully this will teach you a lesson to practise safe sex in the future.” He turns and stalks out of the room, head held high, Mingyu and Seungcheol both watching him leave.

“What’s going on?” Mingyu asks, a little meekly. Seungcheol just shoots him an apologetic look and hurries out of the room after Jihoon. He can hear Mingyu yelling after him, and guiltily shuts the bedroom door to block out the noise.

“Jihoon-ah! Did we really need to tie him up?” Seungcheol asks, a little frazzled.

“As much as I love Mingyu, I’m drawing the line at having sex with him. I couldn’t last for an hour anyway. And I didn’t see you with any bright ideas, Mr. ‘Let’s-Move-Into-The-Bedroom!’” Jihoon shoots him a look, but Seungcheol can tell he’s still mostly proud of himself for securing Mingyu. He has to admit, he’s a little impressed himself. “Why does Mingyu not own any fucking mugs? I deserve a coffee after that.”

“I don’t think he even has coffee, though. He does have wine.” Seungcheol points to the rack of wine under the counter, and Jihoon shrugs, picking one up.

“It’ll do.”

 

-

 

They spend some time in Mingyu’s living room, sipping wine and speculating what the next world might be, trying to ignore the muffled shouts from the bedroom. When Mingyu goes quiet is when Seungcheol starts to feel even guiltier, so he picks up the bottle and heads into the bedroom.

“Hey.” He enters, smiling reassuringly. Mingyu seems to have tired himself out from struggling, and only looks at Seungcheol, defeated. “You want some wine?”

“Not much else for me to do.” Mingyu mopes, and opens his mouth expectantly. Seungcheol awkwardly pours some into his mouth, but quickly stops when he foresees him choking. “How long are you going to keep me here?”

Seungcheol looks up at the clock. They still have a little while to midnight.

“Don’t worry, Mingyu-ah. It won’t be too long now. I promise you’ll be happy to see the others soon.” Mingyu perks his head up eagerly.

“Are we waiting for an orgy?”

“No,” Seungcheol tells him, gently but firmly, “we’re not.” He pats his leg comfortingly. Jihoon sniggers from where he’s appeared in the doorway.

“You’re really cute, you know.” Mingyu tells Jihoon mournfully. “I was looking forward to coming home with you.” Jihoon flushes for the first time that night.

“Thanks, I guess. You’re going to regret saying that in the morning though.”

“Hey, what about me?” Seungcheol asks, indignant. Mingyu only shrugs.

“You were there.”

“Thanks, buddy.”

 

 

THREE

 

He shakes himself awake easily this time, feeling the heat of the midday sun on his face and the noise of sea waves bringing him out of sleep in a more comforting manner than the foreignness of the last two locations. Opening his eyes only confirms his suspicions, as he looks around to see beautiful white sands, a vast blue ocean, and Jihoon and Mingyu laying either side of him. Mingyu is blinking up at the sky, brow furrowed, and slowly turns his head to look over at Seungcheol, and then past him to where Jihoon is groaning as he sits up. His cheeks flush lightly, and he averts his eyes from the both of them quickly.

“I’m very confused.” He says, simply, not moving from his position lying on the beach.

“Do you remember who you are?” Seungcheol asks warily. Mingyu blinks rapidly.

“I thought I was a model, but I’m an idol? But I can still remember being a model?”

“You know who we are, right?” Jihoon asks. Mingyu blinks some more.

“Yeah, I remember you now, and I swear I wouldn’t have acted like that if-”

“It’s okay, Mingyu-yah, you weren’t yourself. It’s all my fault anyway, for getting cursed by that damn witch.” Seungcheol heaves a sigh.

“Genie.” Jihoon corrects.

“A what?” Mingyu asks, perplexed.

“Don’t worry about it.” Seungcheol dismisses him with a wave of his hand. Explaining this to every member on every new day is just going to make him more confused. “Long story short is, we have to find another Sebong-ie just like how Jihoon-ah and I found you.”

“I don’t think that’s going to take so long.” Jihoon says, and Seungcheol follows his line of sight to where he can just see a head peeking out from over a rock some way into the sea, but close enough to swim to.

“HEY!” He shouts, waving over to the figure, who quickly ducks behind the rock again.

“Don’t scare them away!” Jihoon admonishes. “This is a delicate operation, you know!”

“Well it’s not like they can go very far. This is a closed-off bit of beach.” He looks around again to find Mingyu’s observation accurate- the beach is about a mile long and goes back a few hundred feet before he’s met by a steep, high cliff wall, which explains why it’s completely empty aside from themselves. The person currently in the sea must have swam quite a way from the shore to reach them here. Jihoon was still squinting out to the water, watching the now empty rock closely.

“I think we need to swim out to them. It’s a bit too convenient to expect them to come over here, isn’t it? We had to chase around after Mingyu, so it can’t be that easy.”

“You literally handed me a convenient reason to stick with you in the prison, though. It could be that easy.” Seungcheol suggests hopefully. He’d rather rest on this warm beach for just a minute than step into the choppy waters and start swimming.

“Well we can stay here and kick up our feet and potentially leave our friend to drown in the ocean, or we can get moving, Hyung. It’s up to you.” Damn Jihoon’s mind-reading skills.

“Yep. Fine. Let’s go then.” He replies, striding off into the sea, Jihoon beside him and a reluctant Mingyu trailing behind. They all wade into the sea, jeans and all, and when the water becomes too high, start swimming towards the rock they had seen movement at. Jihoon, the strongest swimmer, gets there first and climbs up onto the rock, scans the area around it, then looks back at the other two.

“Nothing?” Seungcheol asks. Jihoon shakes his head.

“What now?” Mingyu huffs, treading the water to stay afloat.

“Have you come to help me?” A female voice says behind them, and Mingyu somehow chokes on a mouthful of seawater trying to turn around. A head has appeared from under the water- a woman, but he isn’t confident he can call her that- with beautiful pink hair that disappears under the waves, except it looks less like human hair and more of the consistency of seaweed. Her body is covered in fuchsia scales, glittering beautifully under the water drops trailing from her shoulders. Silver eyes stare at Seungcheol intently.

“You heard me call?”

“Ah- we didn’t hear your call, but we saw you. What do you need help with?” Seungcheol takes the reigns before Mingyu can blurt out something compromising.

“My name is Jeonghye, and my brother has been captured by humans. I’m afraid they will kill him. I thought I would never see him again, but then I heard your minds on the beach. You’re the first humans I’ve come across with no fear for mermaids. Can you help me?” Seungcheol doesn’t even know where to start with that- so she’s a mermaid, great, good to know-

“You can read our minds?” Mingyu almost shouts, startling the mermaid woman a little, who looks back at him a little questioningly.

“Humans can’t read minds?” Mingyu just shakes his head, paddling at the water a little more intensely. “I suppose that’s why you all talk with your mouths so much.” She ponders.

“What’s your brothers’ name?” Jihoon pipes up.

“Jeonghan.” Jihoon and Mingyu look at him.

“We’ll save him.” He tells her, resolutely. “Do you have any idea where we should start?”

 

-

 

Jeonghye leads them back to the main shore, away from the cove they’d woken up in. There’re people bustling around on the main shore, though, so as soon as they’re in sight of the beach, Jeonghye takes her leave, begging them once again to save her brother. They give her their sincerest promises, and swim the rest of the way, absolutely exhausted by the time they pull themselves up onto the beach.

“Mermaid hunting?” A passer-by asks them. “You’re not going to get anything without a boat. They’re speedy devils, you know.” He chuckles to himself. “But if you’re lucky, you might get one caught in the motor.” He chortles at his own joke and carries on trotting down the beach.

“Charming.” Jihoon remarks, once the man is out of earshot. They all lie there for a few more minutes, catching their breath. The beating sun quickly dries off their soaked t-shirts, just leaving them a little damp where their jeans cling to their legs.

Jeonghye had told them that the last telepathic images she’d received from her brother before he’d fallen out of her range was that of some sort of museum building- there was a crowd around him, and other exhibits nearby. When the three boys started the walk into town, they didn’t even make it to the visitor’s centre before they were stopped by a wall of posters covering a phone box. ‘MERMAID EXHIBITION’, it boasted, ‘ONE WEEK ONLY’. It included brief directions to the museum, which they were able to find quickly. He felt uneasy anticipation building as they approached a large white building. Thankfully, it was a free museum, and they only had to fight the crowds to find a map that directed them to the mermaid exhibit in the west wing.

When they found the room, it was rammed with people who were chatting happily. That, the ambient green lighting of the place, and the fact that the tank in the middle of the room was no bigger than a shower cubicle meant that they had to fight for several minutes more to reach the centre and see the exhibit. When they finally did, Seungcheol felt like he might be sick.

There was Jeonghan, in this small tank, looking much like his sister. Flowing silver hair that went past his shoulders, giving Seungcheol the uneasy impression that he was facing a Jeonghan from four years ago again. Beautiful fuchsia scales framed his face and climbed down his torso, becoming dense around his waist, forming into the powerful pink tail Jeonghye had kept under the water. He looks vacant, arms resting on his waist and gently waving his tail as much as he can to keep upright in the tank, but making no other movement to respond to the children tapping on his glass walls or adults sneering at his passiveness.

He barely has a minute to watch him before the crowd jostles him on, and Mingyu drags the both of them into the next exhibition room, ‘The History of Sirens and their Assassination of Sailors’. Mingyu looks upset, and Jihoon visibly disturbed, and it’s this that snaps him into action. They can’t help Jeonghan by feeling sorry for him.

“We need a plan.” He tells them firmly. “The museum closes before midnight, so waiting in the here until late isn’t an option. We need to get him out of that tank.” Jihoon doesn’t seem to be paying attention.

“We need a distraction.” Mingyu offers, and Seungcheol nods.

“Yeah, I think so. Get everyone out of the room somehow, take Jeonghan out of the tank, bring him back to the beach.” He scratches his head. “So we need a getaway vehicle and a sheltered area to take him to.”

“I can hotwire a car.” Mingyu says a little bashfully. Seungcheol squints at him, and Mingyu smiles weakly. “I used to know this one guy, before he went to prison.” Seungcheol only shakes his head at him.

“Yep, okay. Great. So you’ll get the car ready. There’s an emergency exit door in the main exhibition room, if you can bring the car round to the road just outside, hopefully I can run out with Jeonghan fast enough that no one will stop us in the rush. And Jihoon-”

“I’m going to set their exhibition on fire.” Jihoon says clearly. He’s been looking vacantly at nothing until he says this, when he resolutely snaps his head around and looks into Seungcheol’s eyes, and strides over to the near corner of the room they’re in. He hadn’t been looking at nothing, then, but at the lighter discarded in the corner, that he picks up and clicks once. It still has fuel, and a flame licks into life.

“Come again?” He asks weakly.

“We could just set off the fire alarm, but nothing will get people moving quicker than an actual fire.” He says, a little glint in his eyes. “You can’t say they don’t deserve it.” Seungcheol stares at him for a few seconds but can’t find it in himself to argue. Mingyu looks between them both nervously.

“Fine, but don’t let anyone get hurt. Find a room that’s close enough for people to see it easily, but far away enough that people won’t pay attention to us.” Jihoon nods, a wry smile crawling onto his face. “Mingyu, get a car ready. How long will it take you?”

“Only a few minutes.”

“Okay, great. Set something on fire in fifteen minutes from now, Jihoon, then come back to Jeonghan’s exhibit while people are evacuating. Mingyu, find a car big enough for us all. If all goes well, we’ll be out of here in twenty minutes. Fighting!” The other two nod and say the cheer back, disappearing into the crowd. He exhales slowly, and starts to count down the minutes.

 

-

 

While he waits, he tries to think about meeting Jeonghye at the beach, her request, and their willingness to help. If Jeonghye could pick up their thoughts from hundreds of feet away, Jeonghan might be able to hear him too, if the thick crowd isn’t too stifling. The last thing he needs would be Jeonghan trying to claw him to death while they’re staging a rescue mission.

At that thought, the fire alarm starts to blare, causing him to startle. People around him do the same and start to head back to the entrance, muttering to each other, parents rushing their children along. He lags behind, even when a woman comes out of one of the rooms panicking and screaming about something bursting into flames, causing the visitors to walk more hastily. While security are busy reassuring the crowd that they shouldn’t panic, and rushing people out of the east wing, he slips into the now empty west wing, back into Jeonghan’s room. The merman is in the same position as before, undeterred by the blaring alarm bell. Seungcheol tries to bring thoughts of Jeonghye to his mind as he approaches the tank, and Jeonghan suddenly startles and sits up, whipping around to make eye contact with him. Seungcheol makes easy eye contact back, shooting him a smile and approaching the tank quickly. He takes a running jump to hoist himself up onto the top of the tank, which wobbles dangerously under his weight. He fiddles with the latch until he can open the top of the tank, when he’s suddenly struck by the awkward logistics of how to get the other boy out of the thing. Jeonghan comes to the top of the water, sticks his head out, and eyes him carefully.

“Jeonghye sent you here?”

“She sure did. Are you ready?” Jihoon enters the room at that moment.

“Hurry, Hyung, they’re checking all the rooms.”

“Come here, I’m going to have to pass him down to you.” He looks at Jeonghan, offers his hand out. “Will you come with us?” Jeonghan seems to make the decision to trust them, as he swims up to him and puts his hands on his thigh, pulling himself up onto Seungcheol’s lap. He swings himself around, tail hanging over the side of the tank.Seungcheol grasps onto his chest and lowers him into Jihoon’s awaiting arms, who awkwardly drapes the mermaid over his shoulder, until Seungcheol jumps down and takes him back, holding him bridal style. A shout from the doorway disrupts them.

“HEY!” A guard comes running in, attracting the attention of several other guards who enter the room quickly after him.

“GO!” Seungcheol yells, needlessly, as Jihoon is already halfway across the room to the emergency exit. Seungcheol pelts after him, Jeonghan hanging on to Seungcheol’s neck for dear life. He skids for a moment when he arrives at the door, turning quickly so as not to hit Jeonghan’s head or tail on the doorframe. Ahead of him, Jihoon is running down the steps yelling and waving his arms, effectively parting the unsettled crowd in front of them to get to the car Mingyu has acquired, opening the backdoor and hopping in. Seungcheol races after him, careful not to slip and take he and Jeonghan both down, practically throwing himself into the car. Mingyu starts driving before he’s even closed the door, Jeonghan moving his tail at the last second to avoid getting a fin trapped. The crowd in front of the car are screaming and diving out of the way of Mingyu’s reckless driving, and Seungcheol can’t help but let out a hysterical laugh at the whole situation.

“I’m shocked you actually pulled that off.” Jeonghan says, sounding barely ruffled.

“Me too.” Jihoon says with glee.

“Arggh!” Mingyu says as he swerves the car into the correct lane, narrowly avoiding a collision. Seungcheol grips onto the door tightly, and Jeonghan holds his grip on Seungcheol.

“One of these plans is going to get us killed.” He tries to sit back in his seat and will his heartrate to slow to a healthier speed.

 

-

 

They drive for some time, long enough that they’re sure museum security nor the police are following them. They hadn’t really got as far as thinking about the secluded beach area part of the plan, so they were improvising and driving along the coast until they found an area secluded enough to release Jeonghan back into the ocean. As fate would have it, it was the same stretch of beach they had washed up on earlier, now vacant of the few stragglers they had seen before.

“I can hear Jeonghye-noona again.” Jeonghan said, sounding truly happy. Now that he could see the sea again, he looked like he could actually believe he was going home, back to his family. Seungcheol smiled softly at the delight on his face.

When Mingyu stops the car, Seungcheol swings open the car door and scoops Jeonghan back up into his arms, swinging them around and onto the path down to the beach. In the few minutes it takes for them to reach the shore, they thankfully see no other humans, but they do spot the shimmering body of an approaching Jeonghye. When he’s up to his waist in water, Seungcheol lowers Jeonghan into the ocean, and immediately feels the life and energy in his powerful tail as Jeonghan splashes over to his sister. They come back together in a tight hug, not saying anything, but he assumes they’re pouring out their hearts through their telepathic bond, or something like that.

“What are we doing about the midnight deadline, Hyung?” Jihoon asks from beside him, watching the siblings as they hold each other.

“I’m praying that this Jeonghan still has his sense of responsibility.” He answers, watching them. It was probably the safest option- he didn’t put it past Jeonghan to try and actually claw him to death if he had tried to keep the boy locked up somewhere like they had with Mingyu. He’d thought about whilst looking at Jeonghan’s sharp, glimmering mermaid nails holding onto him in the car. It’s not like he wanted to make holding his members by force a trend either. Sure enough, a minute later, Jeonghan comes swimming back to them.

“Humans, you’ve saved my life. I can never repay you enough.” He bows as low as the water will allow him. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Ah, actually- my friends and I are going to have to lay low for a few hours. Considering, you know, we’re fugitives from the law now, probably.” He says nonchalantly. “I was wondering if you could help us swim back to the cove we came from, and hang out with us until, say, midnight or so? That way we can make our way to safety, erm, under the cover of night.” He delivers with all the false bravado he has. Jeonghan and Jeonghye seem to find no problem with it, however, and readily agree.

“Good plan. I can see why you’re the leader of the group.” Seungcheol smiles at that. “We can only take one of you each though, so the other will have to swim on their own until we can come back for you.” Seungcheol and Jihoon both turn to look at Mingyu, who looks back between them with wide eyes.

“Do you even know how stressed I was driving that car? Are you really doing this to me?” Seungcheol and Jihoon look at each other and giggle, taking the hands of the two mermaids.

“See you soon Mingyu!” Jihoon shouts, as they splash into the cool blue waves.

 

-

 

The last rays of sunset are casting a red glow over the ocean ahead of them. Mingyu and Jihoon are in the water with Jeonghye, who’s trying to teach them how to swim mermaid style. He watches as she clamps Mingyu’s ankles together and encourages him to move his legs as one, but he just wiggles in one place in the water. Jihoon looks like he’s having the time of his life.

“What are you thinking about?” He and Jeonghan are sat on the beach just where the tide meets the sand. It’s nice for now, but they’ll have to move out of the water as it starts to get colder.

“Our friends.” He answers simply. “They’re all…a little lost right now. We need to look for them some more tomorrow.” Jeonghan is quiet for a few seconds, taking that in.

“They’ll be alright for now, they’re all capable enough. It’s scary though, not knowing where they are.” The only comfort is that they don’t know they’re lost, but that doesn’t change whatever they might be going through. Jeonghan is going to wake up tomorrow and have new memories of being trapped in a claustrophobic tank that he never would’ve had to experience otherwise, and Seungcheol can't undo that. “Our youngest is barely twenty. He’s very capable, but I still feel like I need to find him so I can protect him, you know? That goes for all of them, I suppose. It’s my responsibility.”

Jeonghan nods sagely. “Tell me about your friends. Maybe it’ll help you figure out where to find them.” Seungcheol smiles, glad for the distraction.

“I’ll start with Chan, then. I think you’d really like him, Jeonghan-ssi.”

 

 

FOUR

 

He wakes up slowly, drowsy from the relaxing nap he’d taken on a cool beach under a clear sky. He was grateful for it- it was the first time he’d felt a semblance of relaxation in days, and judging by the sounds filtering through his consciousness, it had been a necessary break before moving onto his next challenge. He sits up and opens his eyes with a new determination.

He’s laying on a sleep mat in a small traditional-style Korean home, with Jeonghan, Mingyu and Jihoon laying around him, also waking up. Jeonghan was back to his normal body, thankfully, smooth human-coloured skin and short chestnut hair. He looks at Seungcheol, and then their surroundings, and back at Seungcheol confusedly. Seungcheol would take a moment to explain the situation, only he’s becoming increasingly concerned about the cacophony of noise outside the front door, so he only gives Jeonghan a pat on the arm before he gets up and strides over to the window. Behind him, he can hear Mingyu filling Jeonghan in briefly, and Jihoon appearing side. It’s useless, though- there seem to be crowds of people pressed up against the windows, and he can’t see a thing.

“Sorry Jeonghan-ie, but you’re going to have to pick it up on the way. There’s something happening out there.” He gestures for the other two to join them at the door and slides it open. Two men who were leaning on it on the other side nearly come sprawling into the doorway, wobbling and clutching each other for balance. Seungcheol apologises, but the two men seem to be unaffected, and continue cheering and shouting along with the crowd, clutching each other and laughing.

“Excuse me, sirs, but what’s going on?” Seungcheol looks at them, baffled. What event could draw so many people onto the street?

“They’re back from China, my boy! They did it!” This brings up another round of enthusiastic cheering from the people near them. “Come forward and see!” The man pulls Seungcheol to the front of the crowd, the others squeezing after him, and Seungcheol emerges to see a procession of soldiers in full armour parading down the main street. Rows of civilians cheer them on, crowding the road so much it feels suffocating. Children are sat on the rooftops waving flags or cloth, and a procession of women in hanboks are dancing along with the soldiers.

“When did we ever invade China?” Jihoon asks quietly.

“Your world was a prison in another galaxy, Woozi-yah, I don’t think you have the right to question these things.” Seungcheol replied, clapping for the soldiers, nudging the others to do the same so they blend in.

“His what was a what?” Jeonghan hisses, and Seungcheol just gives him another consoling pat, shaking his head. They really can’t draw attention to strange behaviour in a riled-up crowd like this.

“Dad, what’s that?” A young boy next to them shakes his fathers’ trouser leg, and Seungcheol looks to where a group of different people are appearing in the procession. Rather than the grandeur and colour of the soldiers, these are boys and young men dressed in plain clothing, generally ragged and dirty. The ones without shoes are leaving blood on the road behind them, and their wrists are locked together in chains, each of them being dragged on by a soldier.

“Prisoners of war, son. They’ll be slaves here. About time our country had some of our own.” The father answers, with a tone of pride. The procession continues to march on, and the group of slave boys are jeered at and harassed all the way. They mostly seem to be numb to it- probably exhausted from the journey. Seungcheol can barely watch.

“Do we have to be here?” Mingyu leans over to say in Seungcheol’s ear. He’s not exactly excited to be here either, but he can’t in good conscience leave the place where a whole city of Korean people have gathered together. The next member must be here, somewhere.

In front of him, one of the slave boys, who can’t be more than twelve, falls flat on his face. Without thinking, Seungcheol crouches down to give him a hand, but before he can touch the boys arm, another slave boy quickly heaves him back on his feet. He raises his head, and comes eye to eye with Xu Minghao, who is looking at him distrustfully and trying to hoist the boy back onto shaky legs. The soldier in front tugs on Minghao’s chain and he nearly is sent falling himself, and the nearby crowd laugh. The father next to them uses a slur and spits at Minghao, who continues to support the younger boy, unfazed. Before he knows it, the procession has moved on, and Minghao is out of sight. He looks back at the other boys. Jeonghan is wide eyed, his hands trembling. Mingyu is slack-jawed, and Jihoon stares right back at Seungcheol, mouth a set line. He pushes himself out of his crouch and ushers the group back into the house they’d come from, shutting the door firmly behind them. Jeonghan looks seconds away from hyperventilating.

“Jeonghan-ie, look at me. Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re okay, we’re okay, we’re going to get Myungho-yah back, so just keep breathing with me.” He breathes in and out deeply, holding Jeonghan in place with hands on his shoulders.

“Tell me what’s going on, Seungcheol-ah. Mingyu-yah said something about finding the others, but I don’t understand where we are, or why.” His voice is pitchy and he sounds on the verge of tears. He suddenly feels overwhelmingly guilty for causing this distress, and cups Jeonghan’s face carefully.

“You remember when you were a mermaid? You were stuck in a tank, and we saved you.” Jeonghan nods weakly. “We’re going to save Myungho-yah, just the same.”

“That felt so real.” Jeonghan gulps. “But now I know it wasn’t real, I’m not a mermaid, they don’t exist, I’m a human and I’m in Seventeen-”

“Yes! And now you remember, but Myungho-yah doesn’t yet, and to him, this is very real. So we need your head in the game to help us get our friend back. Are you going to be okay?” Jeonghan looks at him and nods once, still breathing deeply and trying to regain his composure.

“I still don’t understand, but you can explain more when we have him safe.” Seungcheol smiles appreciatively.

“Hyung, we should probably get out of here soon. We’re in someone’s house again, and they’ll probably be back when the procession finishes.” Jihoon pipes up. Seungcheol nods.

“Yeah. But first, let’s look around quickly and see if there’s anything we can use.”

“Hey, we can’t steal from civilians, Hyung!” Mingyu looks scandalised.

“We’ll put it back when we’re done, Mingyu.” Seungcheol says, already rooting through the box in the corner. Mingyu glares over at Jihoon, who’s taken a bite out of an apple as he goes through the rickety chest of drawers, but quickly averts his eyes again when Jihoon looks around.

“Here!” Jeonghan says. He’s looking at a colourful uniform hung up carefully in a cupboard, complete with traditional sword and boots. “Isn’t this what the guards were wearing at the procession?”

“Perfect.” Seungcheol says, picking up the clothing. “Let’s go.” He leads the way, jumping out of the back window of the house and into a quiet back alley.

 

-

 

They wander the streets for a while, trying to follow the procession at a distance so they can see where the prisoners are going. Eventually they climb onto a rooftop and watch as the last of the soldiers and slaves disappear into a beautiful ornamental building in the centre of the town. A man comes out of the front gate to announce to the waiting crowd that the slaves were being held there overnight, before they were sold in the morning, causing a buzz amongst the people.

“We only have one uniform. How are we going to get in there and get him out?” Mingyu looks at the guarded building in despair.

“If I’m in uniform, the other guards won’t question me, I hope- so I can bring you all in with me. The question is how to get Myungho-yah out. If anyone recognises him, we’ll be stopped for sure.” Seungcheol chews at his lip in thought.

“Other than sneaking him out, we have the option to overwhelm them. Let all the slaves free, cause a big distraction, sneak him out in the confusion.” Jeonghan suggests, and Seungcheol looks over at him.

“Surely that’s riskier, though? They might start hurting the prisoners, and it’ll call all the guards to one place.”

“Which leaves you more opportunity to sneak out of the gates.” Jeonghan shrugs. “In my view, you have a chance with that plan. There’s bound to be many guards around the prisoners, you won’t get away with just releasing Myungho-yah because you’re a guard.”

“He can if we create a distraction, but a smaller one than that. Draw the guards away from the prisoners, and Coups-Hyung can sneak around them, then run out of there with Myungho-yah.” Jihoon replies.

“That seems risky too though? Don’t we all need to be together at midnight? If one of us get captured, we could be left behind here. We don’t know the rules to this thing.” Mingyu says, worried.

“Then we’ll make it a hands-off distraction. I’ll tell the guards they’re needed somewhere else- all you have to do is trap them there until we can get him out.” Seungcheol looks around at the others, who say nothing. He’s relying a lot on the guards having a bad method of communicating orders, but it’s the best they’ve got. “We’ll wait until night, so we have the dark to help us. Let’s go over what you guys need to do.”

 

-

 

He approaches the guard at the gate with ease, the other three trailing behind him with their heads bowed. There had been much debate over whether Mingyu or Seungcheol should wear the uniform- Jihoon argued that Mingyu’s height made him more intimidating and authoritative. Jeonghan said that was cancelled out by Mingyu’s inability to lie, or to say anything remotely intimidating, and that Seungcheol was broad enough anyway. Mingyu sulked for a good hour, until Jihoon got tired and laid across his lap to take a nap.

“I’ve been summoned to bring these commoners to the main building.” He says, puffing out his chest. They’d all awoken dressed in clothing similar to the other citizens in the village. While wearing nicer clothing might get them more respect to allow them into the building, they couldn’t risk getting caught stealing, and Mingyu was vehemently against it anyway.

The guard only nods and opens the gate, and he resists doing a victory dance at how easy that was. He strides up through the courtyard to the main building, past another set of guards who also don’t question them. Once they’re inside, they meet an empty entrance lobby. Seungcheol walks up to the doors of the big hall and peeks in- thankfully for them, it’s completely empty. He turns back to the others.

“I’m going to tell every guard I pass to come here. Remember to keep assuring them that the captain is coming, and don’t engage unless anyone looks like they’re leaving.” They nod, wish him luck, and Seungcheol sets off down the corridor.

It doesn’t take long to find the cells, only passing a handful of guardsmen and other officials in the hallways. The guards thankfully take the bait and head towards the main hall, and the officials barely offering him a glance. When he arrives, he counts a group of ten guards standing in intervals in front of the cell doors, the prisoners eerily silent behind them.

“The captain has called everyone to an emergency meeting in the main hall. I’ll take over here until it finishes.” He says, with as much authority as he can. The guards murmur to each other, but head out of the hallway, and one of them hands him a thick bunch of keys as they pass. Seungcheol bows politely and waits for them all to leave the hallway before he starts walking up the hall, looking out for Minghao in the groups of prisoners sat on the cell floors. He’s in the second cell down, sitting with crossed legs and watching him carefully, narrowing his eyes when he recognises him. Seungcheol spends a few anxious minutes trying different keys in the lock, until he manages to swing the door open, and heads straight for his friend. The prisoners have been rammed in, so he delicately steps over hands and toes with his thick boots. Minghao watches him the whole way on approach, unmoving. Seungcheol squats down in front of him and starts to try different keys on the chains around his wrists, talking to him soothingly.

“Hey buddy- so you don’t know me, but I’ve come here to rescue you, you can trust me.” He looks Minghao quickly in the eyes, shooting him a smile. Minghao says something that sounds like a distrustful question. That’s the best Seungcheol can guess, anyway, because he says it in Mandarin, and he falters for a second with the key. Oh boy. He stupidly hadn’t thought about the language barrier- a Minghao who had never lived in Korea would have no reason to speak the language.

“Ah yes- Hello- I love you- erm.” He fumbles with the few Mandarin phrases he knows, and Minghao just continues to look at him distrustfully. Finally, a key turns in the lock, and Minghao’s wrists are set free. There are big purple bruises where they had been pressing into his skin. Minghao looks up at him curiously, taking his own wrist in his hand and rubbing it. The other boy is sharp- he must know by now that Seungcheol is here to help him.

“Minghao-ge, trust me.” He says, in a voice that he hopes conveys what he means. Minghao’s eyes widen when Seungcheol says his name, and he allows Seungcheol to take his hand and pull him to his feet. He wobbles a little standing up but keeps up with Seungcheol who smiles at him gently, leading them out of the cell. The other prisoners around them start muttering between themselves in unease. At the cell door, Minghao pulls back on his hand. He says something in soft Mandarin and gestures to the other prisoners, expression open and vulnerable. Seungcheol looks at him apologetically.

“We can’t, Minghao-ge, there’s too many.” He shakes his head sadly. Minghao pulls on his hand again stubbornly, gazing and speaking in a pleading voice, but he shakes his head again, firmer. Quicker than a flash, Minghao drops his hand and pulls Seungcheol’s sword from his belt, holding it to his throat. Seungcheol gulps and looks at Minghao.

“Please don’t, Minghao-yah…” Minghao only gestures to the keys in his hand, straight faced, and one of the prisoners stand up and take them from Seungcheol’s grip. The chattering around them becomes excited. Within seconds, another prisoner is released, and the others start taking keys from the hook to speed up the process. He feels like an idiot for fiddling with them for so long.

In less than ten minutes, most of the prisoners have freed themselves, standing up and rubbing their wrists, looking to Minghao who seems to have become de facto leader. He says something to the room at large, still pointing the sword at Seungcheol, and another prisoner steps to the front of the huddle. Minghao speaks to him again, and the prisoner speaks to Seungcheol in accented Korean,

“He says you should show us the way out. We’re willing to fight.” Seungcheol looks between the two men, sweating with the pressure of the blade still at his neck, but before he can answer the sound of running footsteps comes down the hall. Mingyu bursts into the room, Jihoon and Jeonghan right behind him.

“Hyung, we need to go, the captain actually came and now the guards are running around-” Minghao turns his sword to point at the newcomers, and Mingyu skids to a stop, surprised.

“What the hell did you do?” Jihoon asks, looking around at the room of buzzing freed prisoners, and Minghao, standing in the centre holding Seungcheol’s sword. The prisoner is quickly translating for Minghao, who watches them steadily. The sound of more footsteps coming down the hall approaches, and Minghao confidently walks up to the door, pushing aside his friends. The first guard enters only to be cut down instantly by Minghao who slices the sword through his chest, causing the guard behind him to falter, Minghao’s sword easily running through him. Minghao moves further into the corridor, the sounds of clanging metal and men shouting in pain reverberating back into the cell hallway. He shouts something back in Mandarin, and the prisoners immediately start heading towards the door at the opposite end, hastily fleeing the scene. It only takes a minute for the room to empty, the prisoners barrelling down the corridor to find an exit. Seungcheol thinks they’ll be fine, probably. They have the power of numbers, anyway.
The sound of fighting in the hallway ends with a heavy thud, and Minghao emerges back into the cell hallway again, covered in blood, but with no discernible injuries. He nods once at Seungcheol’s group, who stand frozen, staring at him, and strides past them towards the door the others left through. Jihoon snaps Seungcheol out of his reverie by pulling him to quickly follow the boy.

“I thought we were supposed to be getting him out, when did you make him leader of the operation?” Jeonghan huffs.

“He did it himself.” Seungcheol says, still flabbergasted.

“He was amazing! He just took on like ten guards on his own. Wow.” Mingyu’s awe is shared by Seungcheol. It’s hard not to be impressed by someone who radiates as much confidence and strength as this warrior version of his friend, but at the same time, he’s not too different from the powerful dancer Minghao he knows so well.

They catch up to him, ushering on the group of prisoners, who are taking turns to jump out of a large window and run into the dark woods opposite the town. He helps a young boy out before easily jumping over the ledge one handed, still clutching the sword.

“Minghao!” Seungcheol says, catching his attention. He falters for a minute, and turns to the others. “Do any of you have good enough Mandarin to explain this?” They just stare at him, and Jihoon says,

“Obviously not, Hyung.” Seungcheol turns back to Minghao, who is twitching and checking the hallway behind them impulsively.

“We’re coming with you.” He also hops over the window ledge and turns to help the others do the same. If the only language they have in common right now is body language, then he’d better make the most of it, so he smiles at Minghao. “We’ll just have to walk with him until midnight. We have nowhere to go anyway.” He says to the others. Jeonghan heaves himself through the window without a fight, the other two close behind. Minghao looks around at them all and seems to accept this. He starts walking after the crowd of prisoners, so they follow after him into the night.

 

 

FIVE

 

He’s getting rather used to this now, he thinks. Even as this new location shakes a little around him, and he can feel the weight of someone lying on top of him, the disorientation of waking in a new place is wearing off. He’s just glad to have the others- it would be increasingly lonely to wake up in a different foreign place with no one to rely on but himself, day in, day out.

He squints an eye open and sees it’s Minghao who is on top of him, pushing up off his chest and looking around, wide-eyed. He starts saying something in Mandarin, shakes himself, then continues in Korean.

“Oh? I remember now?” Seungcheol smiles brightly and pulls Minghao back down into a tight hug.

“Ah, I’m so glad you’re back, Myungho-yah.” They’d spent what must have been hours striding through a dark forest, listening out for animals or pursuit from the Koreans, unable to communicate with Minghao at all, who kept looking over curiously whenever they used his name, and it had been driving him crazy. They’re in a double bed, but it’s still a squeeze for five people, so Seungcheol isn’t surprised by the sound of Jihoon yelping as he falls out onto the floor when Mingyu sits up.

“Where are we?” Jeonghan asks, and Seungcheol takes a look around. The room is richly decorated in deep maroon reds and juniper greens, furniture that was perhaps in fashion two hundred years ago crowding it and a window in front of the bed that shows a vast snowy landscape moving by. There’s a sign on the door that’s written in an alphabet he doesn’t recognise, but he does understand the movement he felt earlier- they’re in a bedroom on a train carriage.

“Is that Russian?” Jihoon asks, pointing to the sign, at the same time Seungcheol says,

“On a train.” Mingyu gasps in excitement.

“It looks like that movie- Murder on the Orient Express!”

“If Wonwoo were here, he’d hit you for calling it a movie.” Jihoon drawls.

“Please don’t curse us, Mingyu-yah, I don’t want our member to be a murderer here.” Jeonghan whines. Minghao bows his head, and Jeonghan backtracks quickly, “Unless they’re being imprisoned for slavery. Then I’ll make exceptions.”

Minghao flashes a small smile, but says in a confused voice, “What do you mean, our member? A murderer?”

“We did technically explain it in detail in the woods last night, Myungho-yah, but you couldn’t speak Korean then. Also, new rule,” Seungcheol commandeers the conversation,“the person from the last universe has to explain the situation. The rest of us are going to explore the train. Okay?” He shifts Minghao off him and onto the bed, crawling over to drag Mingyu out of it. They’re all in dress shirts and slacks, and helpfully, a rack of waistcoats and suit jackets are hung up in the open cupboard over a row of shoes. He takes the lead in shrugging one on, and it’s a perfect fit. Mingyu, conversely, nearly bursts the seams when he tries to pull it over his shoulders, while Jihoon looks like he’s swimming in his, ditches it immediately. Mingyu switches to a waistcoat.

“Wait for us!” Minghao says, dragging Jeonghan out of the bed.

“He’s taken this very well.” Jeonghan informs them disappointedly.

“Seventeen has had good luck until now, haven’t we? It was about time something like this happened.” Seungcheol isn’t going to question Minghao’s perception of the world too much when it allows him such seamless acceptance of their situation. The two boys put on the clothes too, and he hopes no one will look at his and Mingyu’s outfits too closely, as neither of them could fit into the shoes.

They exit the room and move down a hallway of bedrooms, Seungcheol in the lead, until they reach a beautiful lounge room of sorts, a handful of guests sat on the plush couches conversing. What Seungcheol notices first is the diversity of the people. They must be from all over Asia. A man in a turban is in deep conversation with a woman in an oriental-patterned dress, using a language he doesn’t recognise. Two women, in a hijab and burqa respectively, are laughing at something a broad man is saying. A large group in the corner are speaking Japanese, and Seungcheol catches some phrases about an event. When they move further into the carriage, too, he can hear a man with an American accent, and recognises a little Spanish from when Joshua shows off with it. Asia and the Americas too, then. He wonders where exactly all these people are headed to be on this train, and how they’re going to blend in. They pass through the room with a few polite nods, and enter a dining carriage, tables beautifully laid with impressive glassware lining each side of the carriage. Seungcheol is somewhat surprised to see a familiar face sitting at one of them, looking at a notebook. It wasn’t unusual for them to find a lead as soon as they arrived in a new place, but it was unusual to have access to the member immediately, no fuss, no obstacle to overcome. Seungcheol glances back at the others once before leading them over to Seokmin’s table.

“Hi- are you Korean, by any chance?” Seokmin looks up from his pages, closes his book, and gives Seungcheol his familiar dazzling smile.

“I am! Hello! I had no idea other Koreans were on the train! Lee Seokmin.” He gives a hand for Seungcheol to shake and urges for him to sit down. He introduces himself, and Seokmin goes around shaking everyone’s hand pleasantly. “Are you looking forward to the conference?”

“Oh yes- it’ll be good, right?” Seungcheol bluffs. Maybe they should’ve looked around a little for more context clues before jumping in at the deep end.

“It’s certainly amazing, that we can organise such a worldwide event. Such a modern concept! I don’t even know where they found translators fit for every country attending.” Seokmin says earnestly.

“Ah, it’s certainly amazing, yes. What exactly are you going to the conference for?” Jeonghan asks smoothly.

“I’m representing the Korean Tourism Department. Are you all here for government departments too? I was under the impression the other Korean ambassadors had gone ahead.”

“Ah yes, we’re under… various departments. Say, do you know when we’re due to arrive… there?” Jihoon asks, slightly less smoothly. Seokmin looks at him a little strangely.

“We’re still six days away from Moscow. We should be stopping for fuel before the end of the day, though, if that’s what you mean?”

“Ah yes, always good to stretch your legs on a rest stop!” Seungcheol intercepts deftly. He and Jihoon meet eyes. They’ll be in an enclosed space with their member, that they found within minutes, until midnight for certain. It seems too good to be true. They talk for a little while longer until Seungcheol offers to get drinks for the table, the others shooting dark looks at him, seeing straight through his plan to take a breather from trying to bluff a whole conversation about tourism data with the very enthusiastic Seokmin.

He walks back through to the bar he’d seen in the lounge room and opens his mouth to request the drinks, when he remembers he doesn’t have any money. The bartender looks at him expectantly.

“Ah, sorry. Forgot my wallet.” The clearly not-Korean bartender just continues looking at him.

“Drinks are complimentary with your stay on the Express.” The man sat at the bar tells him.

“Ah, thanks.” Seungcheol says, then double takes, and forces himself not to stare at Wen Junhui, sat on his own at the bar sipping at a whiskey. The bartender clears his throat, and Seungcheol orders his drinks with his best attempt at clear English. Seungcheol’s thoughts are racing, trying to make sense of what this means, but he forces himself to sit up on one of the bar stools and look casual.

“Are you here for the conference?” He asks casually, looking at Jun expectantly.

“Isn’t everyone on this train?” Jun raises an eyebrow at him. While Seokmin seems to be his same smiley self, this Jun is cold and off-putting. Nothing like the goofy, shy friend he knows.

“Ah, yes, of course.” Seungcheol laughs weakly. “Who are you, er, representing?”

“Chinese International Policy Department.” Jun answers shortly. The bartender places six drinks in front of Seungcheol, who just nods at Junhui, and taps at one of the glasses for a minute as they sit in pregnant silence.

“Nice talking to you!” He says, standing up and balancing the drinks between his hands. He walks back to the table as fast as he can without spilling anything down himself. He sits and downs his drink in one go as soon as he’s handed them out. Jeonghan and Minghao look at him, concerned, but Seungcheol doesn’t notice. Two members in the same world- on the same train! This isn’t what the genie had told him- she’s breaking her own rules. Unless one was a decoy, not the real member he needed to save? But which one? Seokmin was the most similar to his normal self- but all the other members so far had been at least a little different, personality wise. It wasn’t worth the risk of guessing, so he’d have to secure the both of them by midnight. But how to go about that? He’s not sure how long he’s been in his own head, but when he comes back out of it, there’s a plate of food being put in front of him, and the dining carriage is filling up with guests sitting down for a meal. He eats mechanically, unaware of the conversation but watching Jun intensely, who’s eating alone on the other side of the carriage. When they’ve finished dessert, Jeonghan takes control of the situation.

“It’s been fantastic talking with you, Seokmin-ssi, but I think we’ll be retiring for the afternoon.” He says, as if he’d much rather stay and talk about Korean tourism for another few hours, “I’m sure we’ll see you for the evening meal?”

“Yes, I look forward to seeing you then!” Seokmin smiles so brightly his eyes crinkle up and almost disappear, and he bows to each of them as they stand up from the table.

“Have a good afternoon!”

When they’re back in the cramped bedroom, Jeonghan turns on him.

“Where the hell were you through all of that, Cheol- you might as well have been a mannequin with how much you contributed to our cover story.” He flops back onto the bed dramatically, somehow still managing to look demanding as he glared at his leader.

“Jun is also on the train.” Seungcheol answers blankly, sitting beside him. Jeonghan sits back up, attentive.

“Jun-hyung? He’s- what?” Mingyu looks startled.

“Didn’t you all notice who he was staring at the whole time? The question is- why?” Jihoon asks, sounding as perplexed as Seungcheol feels.

“I thought you’d only picked up one of us in each world?” Minghao looks to Seungcheol.

“Yeah, so far. I guess this is a new challenge.” Seungcheol paces the room as the others begin to discuss the thoughts he’s already run through his head a hundred times. After some time, Minghao stops him with a hand on his arm.

“The most important thing is not to stress, Hyung.” He says gently. “That’s not going to help anything. Have faith in yourself. And in us- we’re in this together.” He gives him a warm smile, and Seungcheol realises that he’s right. It’s all worked out so far, and it’ll work out again as long as he trusts himself and his team.

 

-

 

They join Seokmin again for dinner, and Seungcheol joins in the conversation heartily this time, watching Jun out of the corner of his eye. When they’re sat together afterwards, the conductor enters the room and taps on a glass for attention, announces something in Russian, then repeats it in English. He catches the words ‘stopping’ and ‘short time’.

“What did he say?” Minghao asks.

“I think we’re stopping for the refuelling soon.” Seungcheol answers, but his attention is caught by Seokmin, who stands up abruptly and starts talking to the conductor in fluent Russian. The conductor looks as surprised as Seungcheol feels, but his face quickly switches to alarm as Seokmin continues talking, and he rushes back out of the room.

“What was that about?” Mingyu stares up at Seokmin in shock. When Seokmin looks back, he doesn’t have any of the familiar friendliness on his face.

“You can give up the game now, friends. I know that your friend here is the assassin-” to Seungcheol’s alarm, he pulls an old-fashioned pistol from his jacket and waves it in Minghao’s direction- “and you’re all assisting him. I’ve alerted the conductor, and he’s preparing to call the police upon our arrival. You’re going to be staying in a small Russian holding cell for the next few days, before the central government come to collect you.” He backs off from the table, putting a little distance between them, but still pointing the gun at the group. The carriage is deathly quiet, every other guest still in the dining carriage staring at them in shock.

“Seokmin-ah, you’ve got this all wrong-” Seungcheol starts to stand, but sits back down when Seokmin directs the gun at him without hesitation. He can see no happy look to his eyes, no familiarity at all, and it’s disturbing. The train still hasn’t arrived at its stop, but it’s slowing a little, and the shape of a little village is visible in the distance.

“If you think he’s the assassin, you’re a fool.” Junhui suddenly says, voice carrying over the carriage. He’s standing and looking over at the scene with a passive face. Almost lethargically, he takes out his own pistol, which is when Seokmin swings his own around to point at the other man, eyebrows furrowed. “He can’t even look at your gun.” Minghao indeed looks pale and sweaty, his hands weakly raised beside his head in a gesture of surrender.

“It’s you?” Seokmin asks coolly. Jun only nods.

“I won’t allow civilian casualties, so let them go.” He gestures to the remaining passengers to leave the carriage, who do so quickly, one woman with silent tears on her face. When Mingyu stands to leave too, Seokmin points his gun to him quickly.

“How do I know you’re not all working together? An assassin that cares about civilian lives- give me a break.” Seokmin scoffs.

“I’m guessing your intel was about one man, Chinese, right? Which is why you jumped on the first Chinese passenger you came across.” Jun drawls, sounding almost bored. “No one needs to get hurt- I’m only after the monsters that will be attending the conference, not these poor kids. I doubt your superiors would approve of a pile of bodies, either, so I’ll put the gun down if you do.” Seokmin eyes Jun but says nothing, essentially confirming his words.

“You want to give them to me?” Seungcheol asks hopefully, and both men look at him. “You can give me your guns at the same time, so we’re all on the same page. I don’t even know how to fire the things, so.” Jun and Seokmin look at each other again, but say nothing. Seungcheol claps his hands together.

“Great! So, I’ll stand in the middle, here, and you can just approach me… and put it in my hand…” He stands and holds his hands out, and, amazingly, the two of them approach him slowly. He feels the touch of metal on both palms, and he carefully takes the guns from them, gingerly slipping one into each inner pocket of his jacket. Before he can blink, however, Seokmin has leapt at Jun, delivering a strong punch to his jaw. Jun reacts quickly, pushing on his arm so he stumbles away, then forcefully kicking into Seokmin’s stomach so he falls and goes rolling backwards, crashing into a table and sending cutlery flying. Jun approaches the other man and dodges another punch, giving another deft blow to Seokmin’s stomach so he’s is sent flying into the door at the side of the carriage. He goes to grab Seokmin’s head, pulls it forward so he can slam it back into the glass window, but Seokmin grapples at the door handle at the last minute and the carriage door goes flying open. Both men are propelled out of the moving train and into the deep snow. Seungcheol stares at where they’d both just been standing, frozen in the sudden silence of the carriage.

“Did they just fall out of the train?” Jeonghan says, in shock.

“Quick, we need to go after them!” Mingyu shoots up out of his chair and heads towards the door that’s flapping in the wind.

“What?” Jihoon yelps.

“We only have a few hours until midnight!” Mingyu yells, and goes to the doorway, Minghao hot on his heels. He leans as if he’s about to jump out, but just sways for a second looking at the snow, then looks back to the group. “On second thought-”

“Get on with it, Mingyu-yah.” Minghao says, and promptly shoves Mingyu out of the door then jumps after him quickly. Jihoon is staring at the sight with something like disbelief.

“Damn kids.” Jeonghan mutters, pulling Jihoon by the arm, who lets himself be led to the door. Seungcheol watches as the two jump out after their friends. The conductor enters the room again, looks around at the scene, and goes to grab for him.

“Sorry, gotta go!” Seungcheol says, and jumps after his friends.

 

-

 

The fall isn’t very far, and it’s cushioned by the thick snowfall, but he still fells the adrenaline rush as he thumps into the smooth snowfall. The train isn’t moving very fast, but it still leaves them behind quickly, and he’s suddenly stood in the middle of a vast stretch of flat land, snow up to his knees and his friends scattered half a mile along the train tracks. Not so far away, he can see Seokmin and Jun still brawling on the train tracks, the other members rushing towards them. In a moment of quick thinking he pats himself on the back for, he takes the guns from his jacket and hides them in the snow before running over to join the scene.

By the time he arrives, Mingyu and Jihoon have managed to restrain Jun, while Jeonghan and Minghao hold onto Seokmin. Jun has a busted lip and Seokmin is bending over a little awkwardly, but no one is seriously injured.

“Why did you follow us?” Jun spits some blood from his mouth, staining the pure white snow with red.

“You saved our lives, so we’re here to protect you from each other.” Seungcheol stays stoutly. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, Russia, and it’s getting dark. One of you would’ve killed the other, and then he would’ve frozen to death out here, so here’s the better plan. We’re going to huddle together for warmth and walk until we reach the village, without any more fighting. We’re then going to hide somewhere for the night, because the conductor is bound to alert the police when the train arrives. We’ll figure the rest out in the morning.” He looks sadly down at his socked feet, soaked through and already numb. “And maybe find some shoes, too.”

“Who are you?” Seokmin asks, looking at him with distrust. Seungcheol looks right back at him, head held high.

“An old friend, Seokmin-ah. One who can’t bear to see you hurt each other. So will you listen to me for tonight, at least?” Seokmin huffs, and Jun just looks at him curiously.

“I’m going to take that as a yes. You two can be on opposite sides of the huddle.” He walks into the centre, urging Jeonghan and Mingyu to link arms with him. “I promise, it’ll make more sense in the morning.”

 

 

SIX

 

He’s woken by a yelp, and sits up quickly to see Seokmin and Jun looking at each other, looking around frantically at the group, and then their surroundings. They’re lying on a hill of soft grass, seemingly at the edge of a forest, looking down upon a walled kingdom. The houses and landscape aren’t modern, nor is it Korean- it reminds him of the Camelot tales he used to be told as a bed time story. The great big European-style castle catching his eye affirms his ideas. Seokmin keeps muttering ‘What? What?’ under his breath, and Jun’s eyes are the size of saucers, his arms wrapped around his knees.

The both of them did come through to the next world, then. He files that information away to think about later.

“Woah,” Mingyu intones, taking in the landscape below them, “Why has everyone else’s world been so much more interesting than mine?”

“Believe me, your world was eventful enough,” Jihoon grouches, standing up and dusting off his clothing. They’re all dressed nicely, better than an average citizen of this period, he guesses.

“Hey guys. You okay?”

“Wh-what just happened?” Seokmin looks absolutely frazzled. Seungcheol pats his head affectionately and holds out a hand to help him up. Jeonghan does the same with Jun, pulls him into a reassuring hug.

“Let’s start walking to the town and I’ll catch you up on the way. We shouldn’t waste time.”

 

-

 

A little while later they pass through the huge city gates with no trouble, and wander into a disconcertingly quiet town, only the odd elderly man sitting outside his house, or pair of children running up the street.

“Hey, kid, where’s your parents?” Jeonghan asks the older child.

“At the King’s speech.” She replies disinterestedly, continuing to run after the younger one. Jihoon watches them go and then turns to the group, suggesting they head to the castle. The endeavour is proved fruitful when they find a vast crowd of peasants ramming the roads leading up to the courtyard of the castle, and distantly, a voice carrying over the crowd. When the group approaches the back of this crowd, the rabble notice them quickly, and murmur to each other, automatically stepping aside to create a pathway through the crowd. Seungcheol wonders if it’s their class, clearly indicated by their dress, or their race, standing out in this feast of white people, that makes them part the crowd.

“C’mon,” Seungcheol mutters, taking the opportunity to investigate further into this new world. As they get closer to the source of the speech, he realises he has no idea what’s being said- probably unsurprisingly, it’s not being spoken in Korean. Mingyu nudges him in the side, eyeing the townspeople who watch their every move warily.

“Hyung- that’s Hansol-ah speaking.” Sure enough, a second later they’re close enough to see Hansol standing up on a balcony- in full King garb, crown and all- addressing his people. Even though he can’t understand the language, he speaks with a confidence and stability he’s never heard from the boy before. He wonders what this Hansol has been through to have taken on the role of King so young. His stomach is sinking at the thought of trying to manoeuvre this Hansol with a language barrier; a prisoner of war was one thing, a King would be much harder to access.

At that moment, Hansol seems to notice the movement in the crowd, as have the stiff group of nobles and royal staff standing behind him. He says something more to the crowd, raises the royal sceptre in his hand, and the crowd chant something back, suddenly enough to make the group jump, Mingyu shuffling closer to Seungcheol. Up on the balcony, Hansol says something to a servant, who rushes off, then looks directly and Seungcheol and smiles so brightly that it makes him wonder if Hansol might be the first of his members to remember him. He’s gesturing for the group to approach the big castle doors, the only place in the courtyard not crammed with people. Despite the fact that the townspeople are now filtering out back in the opposite direction towards their homes, buzzing with conversation, they don’t have to fight against the crowd, who continue to make way for them. Seungcheol finds it disconcerting.

They arrive at the door right before it is opened to reveal a meek servant girl, who says something quickly and begins walking away again, so he assumes they should follow her. He really wishes Joshua were here for this one. As they begin to climb a grand staircase, he feels Seokmin shadowing him nervously, so he reaches back to squeeze his hand in comfort.

They approach a large room with big, embossed doors, and the servant girl enters, the boys following after her. She says something to the room of people- consisting of Hansol, sat on a glistening gold throne, and several other snooty-looking men standing around- and Hansol smiles and replies Thank you. Seungcheol knows that much English, at least. He goes on to say something else to the room of men, who glance at each other before leaving the room with murmurs of assent. When the sound of the doors shutting behind them leaves Hansol in a room with half of Seventeen, Seungcheol’s mind begins flitting through ideas of how to keep everyone here until midnight. Would barricading the door be considered treason?

But as Hansol looks at them with a huge smile and sparkling eyes, Seungcheol wonders again if that might not be necessary at all, if by some miracle Hansol remembers.

“Wow, hello! I wasn’t expecting you guys to be here, or to come at all-” Hansol begins, in perfect Korean, standing up from his throne, and Seungcheol feels the group collectively let out a breath, “You don’t know how happy I am to see you all!” This is it! He really does remember, that damned genie gave him a break at last-

“It’s been so long since I left Goguryeo, you must tell me all the news- I presume my sister sent you? I hope you bring news of her good health?” He continues brightly, quickly approaching them with a hopeful look. Seungcheol can’t keep up, can’t seem to form words, stumbles over his own tongue trying to take in what that means and form a believable lie. Thankfully he has Jeonghan on his side.

“Ah, yes your highness, you sister sent us all this way to inquire after you, and to discuss the peace between our lands. We’re so relieved to see you in good health, sir!” He leads the others into a bow, tugging on Jun who’s staring at Hansol in some sort of daze.

“Ahh, no need for that.” He dismisses their bow easily with a wave of his hand. “I’m truly glad just to have you here- I haven’t spoken Korean in nearly five years. Is the rest of your party in the town?” Seungcheol tries to rack his brains for why Hansol seems to think there’s more of them, but the confusion must show on his face. “Where are your horses? Your bags, supplies?”

“I’m afraid we were harassed by bandits not long before we came to enter the kingdom, your highness. Everything we had was taken- they only spared us our lives and our clothes.” Jeonghan says in a sombre tone, gesturing to Jun’s split lip from his fight with Seokmin. Hansol looks at him very seriously.

“I’m so sorry about that- I’ll have a patrol go out and try to recover your things. I wasn’t aware we still had bandits so close to our border.” He bows to them, and Seungcheol can tell he’s trying to hide his disappointment. He was probably expecting a letter from his sister (the Queen of Korea, apparently?) or a gift of Korean foods that he’s been missing. “Please, let me arrange for baths and warm beds for you all, you must be tired after your journey.”

“Actually, your Highness, I have a request, if it doesn’t trouble you.” Jeonghan spoke up again, and Seungcheol sees Hansol glance between them quickly, probably trying to figure out who exactly is the leader in the group.

“Of course, Sir-?”

“Yoon Jeonghan, your Majesty. Our friends here aren’t from our land,” he gestures to Minghao and Jun, “they come from a very distant country- and they’ve been wondering how you and your sister came to sit on such respectable royal seats on opposite sides of the world! We told him to wait to find out, as surely no one can tell the tale in such a way as you yourself, sir.” He finishes with a bow, and Seungcheol is impressed at his quick-thinking strategy for gauging the situation they’ve walked into. Also, at how straight-faced he’s being, calling his dongsaeng so formally and respectfully, in a way that he knows Hansol will laugh as soon as his memories are restored. The present Hansol however only nods with a sad smile.

“It is saddening to talk about, so I’ll summarise briefly.” He looks at the Chinese boys warmly, who smile back.

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Minghao says, bowing respectfully.

“Let us settle down over a meal while we do so.” Hansol leads them out of the room, a servant jumping to walk ahead of them down a corridor and opening the door into the dining room for them, where the table is just finished being set for one. Something in Seungcheol’s heart tugs when he sees it, and pictures Hansol, sitting alone in this big room, day in, day out, surrounded by stoic servants and guards. He speaks to a servant girl in English, who nods and scurries away.

“I do hope the cook doesn’t try to cook too much more- they always serve more than enough for one person alone, anyway.” Several servants file in with plates and cutlery and begin setting out seven more places along the table. They all sit and begin to eat.

“It all started when I was fifteen, and my father died very suddenly of a sickness. Three days later, we received news from Camelot that a plague had spread through the land, which had killed half of the population and many occupants of the castle, including my mothers’ parents and brother. The shock of the news, on top of the death of my father- she fell sick and died within the week.” Hansol spoke solemnly, his voice laced with longing. “Because my mother had married into the family, she couldn’t take up my father’s place in Goguryeo, so I was in line for the throne anyway. But when it became apparent that I was needed in Camelot, too- I had to choose. Both are my hereditary right.” He straightens his back as if he were physically feeling the weight on his shoulders. “But there was one clear option, in the end. My sister was ten years old, not old enough to rule, but old enough to begin preparing. We had my father’s relatives and a stable government, who could rule on her behalf until she became old enough to claim the throne. Camelot, however, was in chaos from the amount of death here, and needed help immediately.” He looked around at the group, and speaks quieter, even though from what he said, no one around them understands Korean anyway. “I really miss Goguryeo though. I love Camelot, and its people, and I’m glad I could help the Kingdom get on its feet again, but nothing compares to the place you were raised, you know?” He smiles softly again, looking around the group. “But I’ve not been very formal about this- please, tell me your names and your lands!” He looks at Seungcheol, who is sat to his left, expectantly.

“Ah, I’m, er- Sir Choi Seungcheol, of… Daegu.” He cringed, hoping this was good enough for Hansol. He has no idea what ranks exist in this universe’s version of Korea, or what regions, so it was really a stab in the dark. Hansol, however, just nods and accepts it, easy going as ever. Mingyu struggles to swallow his large mouthful of food before he other members followed suit, Jeonghan swiftly including Minghao and Jun as his guests in his own introduction, to avoid naming the supposed far away land they had invented. Hansol warmly welcomes them all again, before a man enters the food hall. His dress indicates him to be someone important, presumably a Lord or whatever the hell they have in Camelot, bowing to the group and speaking to Hansol rapidly in English. Hansol replies calmly, and the man bows his head again before sweeping out of the room. Hansol sighs.

“To be honest with you, your visit is a little ill-timed. Since the country stopped being in mortal peril, which was only very recently to be honest with you, there’s been unrest about my place as King.” Seungcheol looks up in curiosity.

“But you said you had helped restore Camelot, and that you’ve been king for nearly five years? Why would they contest you now?”
For the first time, Hansol can’t meet his eyes. “People here, they’re- ah- sheltered. It’s not common we have people from such distant lands- who look so different- arrive here.”

“They’re holding a racist revolt.” Jihoon supplies bluntly, sharp eyes on Hansol, who thankfully doesn’t take offence.

“It’s funny, really. The Goguryeo people considered me a foreigner, and the people of Camelot also consider me too foreign to rule. So where do I go?” He shrugged half-heartedly and took a drink from his goblet. “A surviving cousin on my mother’s side, Lord Gabriel, became old enough to legally rule yesterday, so tensions are high. I could be assassinated any day, really, which is why I gave a speech earlier on how good of a King I am, or whatever the barons wanted me to say. It probably won’t stave off the discontent, but it’s worth a shot.” Seungcheol couldn’t share in Hansol’s casual concern about being potentially murdered however, as alarm bells were going off in his head.

The obstacles the genie is pitting him against seem to be completely random in their levels of danger, and Seungcheol would rather deal with a horny Mingyu for another week than the next six hours of trying to keep Hansol safe from assassination, for God’s sake.

Right on cue, a guard comes rushing into the room and speaks to Hansol in a harried voice. Seungcheol doesn’t need a translation.

 

-

 

“I’m afraid I can’t guarantee your safety within the castle as I don’t know which of the Lords will be supporting my cousin, so you should take some horses and escape,” Hansol orders, marching out of the room where a hasty meeting had just been held in light of Hansol’s family member approaching with an army some way south of the border. “Head north to the neighbouring kingdom. If I survive, I’ll send men to find you when this is all over. If I don’t, you should head back to Goguryeo by the end of the week.” He speaks calmly, as if his very possible impending death is a detail of the weather. He bows low and faces them again with genuine smile. “Thank you so much for coming. Please pass my love onto my sister.” He begins to walk down the grand staircase, leaving them staring after him with wide eyes.

“Your majesty!” Jeonghan starts, hurrying after him. Hansol continues walking ahead. “Why don’t you come with us? You don’t need to fight this war- your cousin can rule, and you could come home to your sister-”

“Ah, that would be nice, Jeonghan-hyung. But I would never be accepted back in Goguryeo if I had run away from a battle, you know that.” Hansol turned to enter a room, that was revealed to be a stately bedroom, where Hansol began taking off his crown and regal cloak.

“You said it yourself, your cousin has an army and some of your own Lords may be on his side- surely you won’t have enough men-” Minghao’s alarmed voice voiced Seungcheol’s own thoughts. Hansol only nods, and continuing to take off his soft cloth shoes, putting on hard leather boots.

“Yes, very possibly, Minghao-hyung.”

“Well, if you’re going to be like that,” Jihoon says abruptly, before promptly whacking Hansol over the head with a decorative shield he apparently pulled from the wall. Hansol buckled to his hands and knees with the blow, blinking rapidly and looking up at Jihoon.

“Wha-” he slurred, while Seokmin shrieked from the other side of the room. Jihoon hits him again, and this time, Hansol flops onto the floor, unconscious.

“JIHOON!” Seungcheol splutters, crouching to check Hansol’s head for injury.

“Don’t Jihoon me, Hyung! He was about to go get himself killed, and we still have like-” he spins around to see the grandfather clock against the wall- “five hours until midnight. Now we just have to keep him safe for the next few hours, and Camelot can worry about its invasion when we’re gone.”

“Yeah, five hours for Lord Gabriel’s army to arrive and take over the castle, because their king can’t lead his army against them, because you just knocked him out with his own shield!” Jeonghan hissed, looking even more panicked than before. Seokmin and Jun were clutching onto each other, Seokmin still looking wide-eyed at Hansol on the floor. Mingyu stares at the scene in disbelief but speaks up.

“There’s no use fighting about it. It’s been done now, thanks to Woozi-hyung. Hansol said we could leave to the north, so we should just do that and keep riding until midnight.” Jihoon nodded in agreement.

“We only have to last a few hours, and we should get as far away from the battle as we can.” He also crouches to gently stroke Hansol’s hair, whispering a soft ‘sorry’ to his still form.

“Oh, great plan, the foreigners in a racist land will just walk through the castle carrying the body of the king and there’s no way anyone will stop or question us.” Jeonghan says scathingly.

“Whatever we do, we can’t stay here. Someone will come looking for him soon.” Minghao warns, and Seungcheol groans, rubs his face in his hands for a second, still crouching beside Hansol.

“Maybe we should do just that, though.” Mingyu suddenly says, and Seungcheol looks at him questioningly. “What Jeonghan-hyung said, I mean- our options are barricade ourselves in his room, one of the first places anyone is going to come looking for a missing king, or leave this room and get Hansol somewhere safe, where people are definitely going to notice us. But if we don’t try to hide- go out there and say he’s our hostage- then people won’t touch us, we’ll be able to leave, and they’ll focus on their battle without Hansol.”

“But that doesn’t guarantee our safety.” Seungcheol said seriously. He’s impressed by Mingyu’s thinking- it’s a mostly good plan, except for one small factor. “Hansol thinks half of the aristocracy is against him anyway, and we might just be handing them the opportunity to kill us and Hansol in one go.” Outside, the shouting and the sound of men in armour running down stone hallways becomes apparent.

“I think it’s the best plan we have- we only have to put it in action if someone stops us anyway.” Minghao adds quickly. “But we shouldn’t leave the castle- none of us can ride a horse, guys. We can’t walk away from a battle, anyone could catch up with us in no time.” His words settle in, and Seungcheol feels out of his depth. They’re stranded in this fucking castle with no way out and an invasion about to be upon them, with hours of time left to keep everyone alive and safe.

“Hiding is our only option.” He says resolutely. “We’re going to go and find a secure room, a cellar or something, barricade ourselves in and hope for the best. Okay?”

“We’re going to get stopped and killed.” Jeonghan insists.

“We have to hide Hansol,” Seungcheol rebuts, standing up and striding over to the bed and grabbing a blanket. “I’ll carry him under this, and we’ll all take stuff so it doesn’t look so out of place. If it seems like we’re helping the war effort no one will question it,” he declares, more confidently than he feels. “We can use it all to barricade the cellar anyway. Here, two of you can carry this chest, and Jihoon has his shield- and, I don’t know, someone grab that tub thing?” He can see them following him around the room with their eyes but still standing in indecision. “Or does anyone have a better plan?” A few murmurs and shrugs from them confirm the answer, and Jeonghan begins to reluctantly shuffle towards the array of swords displayed on the wall. When Jun leaves Seokmin’s side to help Mingyu with the chest, Seungcheol can see they’re both visibly shaking. It’s a far cry from the spy and assassin duo they’d met yesterday. Seungcheol gently pulls Seokmin into a hug.

“Hey, you’re okay.” He rubs up and down his back soothingly, and Seokmin clutches his shirt. “We’re going to be fine, okay? I promise I’ll keep you safe. Do you want to carry Hansol?” Seokmin lets out a distressed little noise, so Seungcheol quickly rectifies. “Or not, it’s up to you. I know he’ll be safe with you, though.” He backs off and gives Seokmin his best Reassuring Leader smile. Seokmin meets his eyes and nods once, moving over to Hansol’s side and covering him with the blanket, uncharacteristically quiet. Seungcheol hopes the next world will be a little easier on them all. He himself grabs another blanket and throws it over the small desk table in the corner, hoping it will make it look ambiguous enough that no one will question why he’s carrying it through the castle.

“Okay, all ready?” He asks the room at large.

“As ready as we’ll ever be.” Jeonghan replies, grasping onto a sack of weaponry. Seungcheol hitches up the desk in his arms and opens the bedroom door, leading his crew on their new stealth mission.

 

-

 

His plan goes surprisingly well, for the most part. He heads in the general direction of where he hopes the cellar will be, going down any corridor that might lead further underground. They pass bustles of people running through the castle urgently, too focused on finding their own stations to question the foreigners with their strange mission. Only once do they got stopped, by the same man who had come into the dining hall briefly earlier, who directs a question at Seungcheol. He looks the man boldly in the face, and answers in Korean,

“I can’t speak English.” He nods as if he’s been very helpful, strides on as if he has somewhere urgent to be, and thankfully, the man doesn’t hold them up.

Soon they leave behind the hustle and bustle and find the cellar, deserted and dank. Minghao sets down his boxes and takes some of the torches from their brackets outside to light up the dark room. Seungcheol is glad they have blankets between them, too, as he doesn’t fancy testing Hansol’s unconsciousness with the cold temperature of the room.
Seokmin gently sets Hansol on the floor, and the others move to put their objects up against the cellar door. Between them they have the large chest, a small desk, a sack full of swords and blades that Jeonghan puts on said desk to weigh it down, two decent sized boxes that Minghao begins searching through, and Jihoon’s stack of shields. He plops them all down but keeps the big decorative one by his side, and when he curls up against the wall, it almost covers him completely.

“Good job, team.” Seungcheol smiles at them warmly. He wants them to know he’s truly proud of them, and thankful- as much as he feels the responsibility for their safety, he knows he couldn't have done this without them.

“Now we wait.” Minghao says, sliding down the wall next to Jihoon. Seungcheol picks up Hansol and Jeonghan brings over the other blanket, and they all sit against the wall and wait.

 

-

 

The next few hours are uneventful. Seungcheol is on edge waiting for midnight and straining for any noise or sign that they’ve been found out, that Gabriel has entered the castle, anything. The stone walls are unforgivingly cold and dense, and he hears nothing but a steady dripping noise while the group talks quietly. Seungcheol fully explains the situation again- the fan girl, the genie lamp, the worlds he’s been to up until now. Seokmin and Jun take it all in quietly, and Jihoon tells the story of Mingyu’s universe (over his protests) to make them both loosen up a little and laugh. To Seungcheol, the who and why and how don’t matter so much anymore. All he knows is he needs to protect his family.

After some time, a distant sound enters the cellar: cheering and stampeding footsteps. The sound of a victory; the sound of an invasion. Seungcheol hugs a still unconscious Hansol close and hopes they have enough time, but the sound is getting closer. Jihoon and Jeonghan stand to wait by the door, Mingyu and Minghao following after them.

“How much longer can it be?” Seokmin mutters to himself, anxiously. Jun’s teeth start chattering. The sounds get closer, and suddenly, someone rattles the handle of the door, and a man’s voice is shouting. The rattling stops. The occupants of the cellar hold their breath.

Then, the sound of someone slamming their weight against the door abruptly shakes the room, and Seokmin yelps. The man outside clearly hears him as he yells something at the door and shoves at it again, rattling the objects barricading it.

“I- I’m sorry!” Seokmin chokes, while the members at the door move to brace their weight against it, Jun getting up hurriedly to join them. In his arms, Hansol stirs.

“Hm? Hyung?” He slurs drowsily, disturbed by the continued banging at the door. The men outside are still shouting, and Hansol looks around, confused and unadjusted to his new surroundings.

“It’s okay.” Seungcheol says to both Seokmin and Hansol, pulling Hansol firmly into his chest and reaching out for Seokmin’s hand. “It’s going to be fine, I promise-” At that moment, the door bursts open, sending Mingyu sprawling to the floor and Jun slamming into the wall, the others stumbling away over the spilled swords. The man shouts and kicks the chest on the floor away from him, abruptly swinging his sword down onto Mingyu. Jihoon reaches his shield in front of Mingyu at the last second, saving him from a nasty injury, but cries out as the clang of the sword onto the too-big shield causes something in his arm to snap loudly. Jeonghan grabs a sword from the floor and stands in front of Seungcheol and Hansol, while Minghao is grabbed roughly and held against one of the men, who advances on Jeonghan, and distantly, Seungcheol can hear the first chime of midnight-

 

 

SEVEN

 

He sits up, heart racing, and quickly takes stock. They’re out of the castle, out of imminent danger, in what looks like a student’s bedroom. Seungcheol is squeezed into the single bed with Hansol and Seokmin either side of him, and when he leans out to do a quick headcount of the boys on the floor beside them, he nearly whacks his head on the bunk bed above him. He counts four people spread out on the floor, then counts again, double checks the bed. They’re missing someone.

“Where’s Jihoon-ah?” He asks, and his words hang in the silence of the room. The others look around, but the room is small, so it’s clear he’s not there. How could this have happened? Jihoon had been closer to him than Jun or Minghao had been, it wasn’t a problem of proximity- it wasn’t even his world, there shouldn’t have been a problem with him coming through with them. Did his injury disqualify him from this game? His panic is brought to an abrupt stop when hears a groan from the top bunk.

“I’m here.” Jihoon says, through gritted teeth, and Seungcheol scrambles over a stunned Seokmin to see Jihoon sitting up on the top bunk, holding his arm delicately against him, face scrunched up in pain. Seungcheol lets out an exhale holds onto the bedframe to stop himself from falling over with dizzying relief.

“Okay. We’re all here. Great. Let’s just rest for a minute after that, shall we?” He plops back into bed, but there’s no more space to lie down as Seokmin has crawled over to Hansol’s side.

“Vernon-ie? You okay?” Hansol is clutching his head with his hands and has his eyes screwed shut.

“Head hurts.” He says, voice thick.

“Sorry.” Jihoon says guiltily from the top bunk.

“Hyung- I think we’re in a student dorm.” Minghao says from where he’s peering out of the front door. “We can’t be far from a hospital here- I think some of our members need to go.” Seungcheol’s blood has stopped pounding in his ears enough for him start assessing the situation clearly, and he knows Minghao is right.

“Yes, I think so too. Jeonghan-ie, would you look after Hansol? And-”
Mingyu speaks up quickly. “I’ll take Woozi-hyung.” He stands and Jihoon looks at him curiously. “It’s my fault anyway.” He says, quieter, guilt written all over his face.

“It wasn’t.” Jihoon says sharply.

“Okay!” Seungcheol says quickly. They can argue between themselves later. “You guys find the nearest hospital, get these two looked at. Seokmin-ah, do you want to go with them? You were pretty shaken back there.”

“No, I’m okay, Hyung. I would rather be doing something helpful. You’ll need more help here if we’re dividing up the team.” Seungcheol nods appreciatively. It’ll be better for him to be in action, rather than sitting in a hospital and panicking.

“We should split into pairs. Seokmin-ie, Myungho-yah- can you guys stay at the dorms, maybe ask around the building about the campus, the students, anything that could help us? Jun and I will walk around campus, look out for our next member. Everyone meet back here when you’ve finished.” He swipes the student pass from the desk, hoping Park Jimin won’t be needing it anytime soon, and the groups disperse to their tasks.

 

-

 

He and Jun wander around the campus for a while, peeking into lecture halls and scanning corridors for familiar faces. They eventually find the dramatic arts rooms, looking in carefully for signs of their friends, to no avail. The music department, stage play department, and contemporary dance all turn up similar results.

“Maybe I’m thinking about this all wrong. The members so far have been different from themselves- we’ll probably have more luck finding them in chemical engineering, or something.” Seungcheol sighs.

“We have time, we can look around the whole building. I’ll just look in these rooms really quick.” Jun gestures to the small singing practise rooms down a dead-end hallway ahead of them.

“Yeah, okay.” Seungcheol watches him go, strolls down the adjacent hall lined with big, empty dance studios. He’s about to turn back around when he spots a person in the very last room and cranes his neck to look through the big glass window in the door. A student is in there, alone, dressed in loose practise clothing, hair damp with sweat and hastily brushed out of his face. Seungcheol nearly bursts into the room with the joy of finding their next member, but is stopped by the sight of his dancing.

He has always known Chan to be a good dancer- an excellent dancer, secretly always his favourite in Seventeen. He’s powerful, charismatic, sharp and precise, and the hardest worker he’s ever met. Yet he’s never seen something like this. This Chan has much more classical influence in his poise, and his power is subtler, but still striking. He’s able to spin and leap and glide across the room seemingly effortlessly, with amazing grace. For lack of a better word, he looks beautiful.

He can see the moment Chan notices him at the door, meeting his eyes in the wall mirror, and Seungcheol quickly steps in the room, hoping he didn’t look like a creep watching him from outside.

“Hi! Can I help you?” Chan asks brightly, patting at his forehead with a towel, giving Seungcheol a bright smile.

“Hi! Sorry, I was just walking by and I saw you practising- you’re really amazing, you know.” Chan smiles bashfully and lets out a cute little giggle.

“Ah, thank you so much!”

“Are you practising for a performance?” He asks, genuinely interested. Chan works hard for everything, treats every dance like it’s the most important of his life.

“Last minute practise for tonight- I’m in the line-up of performances for the Summer Ball meal. Are you going?” Chan asks, a little hopefully.

“Ahh, well, I wish I were, but we didn’t get any tickets.” Seungcheol says, already considering the logistics of sneaking eight boys into an event.

“Oh, I have some spares! They gave me a bunch, in case my family wanted to come.” Chan looks up at him with shining eyes. “You can have them if you need some?”

“You’re a lifesaver, Ch- friend.” Seungcheol catches himself before he tells Chan his own name. He sticks out his palm. “Choi Seungcheol.” Chan takes it in his own warm hand and shakes it happily.

“Lee Chan. It’s really nice to meet you, Seungcheol-ssi.”

“Please call me Hyung, Chan-ah. I’m pretty sure I’m older than you.” Chan laughs and confirms this by stating his age. Seungcheol waggles his eyebrows and happily informs him that he’s four years older, and Chan huffs out a laugh.

“Another Hyung? I think I’m starting a collection.” Seungcheol smiles- so much for finding Chan in chemical engineering, completely different from himself. This Chan has been the most familiar of his members so far, even if he is a little more earnest, preening under Seungcheol’s attention. “If you want to drop by my room this evening I can give you the tickets?” He tells Seungcheol his room number and building, and Seungcheol takes a mental note, already devoting the afternoon to finding it.

“Sounds good, Chan-ah.” Chan smiles at him again, eyes crinkling. At that moment, the door opens quietly.

“Hyung? I thought you’d left, you weren’t there when I came back-” Jun is stood in the doorway, and Chan leans around Seungcheol to see him, waves at him happily. “Oh, sorry, I’ll just-” Jun backs out of the room again.

“Just walking by, you said?” Chan asks with an eyebrow raised and a small smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth. Seungcheol tries to repress a smile and backs away from the other boy.

“See you tonight, Chan-ah.” He leaves the room again, feeling Chan’s eyes on his back as he shuts the door behind him.

 

-

 

They head back to the room to meet the others, but the hospital team aren’t back yet. He tells the other three about meeting Chan, and thankfully, Seokmin and Minghao picked up enough information in their search to know where to find Chan’s dorm room.

“Do we know the dress code for this ball?” Minghao asks.

“Where are we even going to get clothes for this thing?” Jun asks, more pressingly. Seokmin is already at the wardrobe in the corner.

“This guy barely has anything formal in here- and definitely not enough for all of us to wear.”

“I’ll ask Chan-ah when we see him.” Seungcheol answers easily. “I think he was pretty taken with me- he was kind of flirty.”

“No different to usual then?” Minghao says. Seungcheol looks at him, confused, but the other doesn’t elaborate.

“Chan still isn’t going to have enough for all of us, though, and it wouldn’t fit all of us anyway.” Jun says. Seungcheol shrugs.

“He’ll have friends, I’m sure. Or he’ll direct us to a thrift shop to pick some stuff up, or we’ll just turn up in the clothes we’re wearing.” They’d woken up that day in casual dress, but if he can charm the doorman enough, it shouldn’t stop them from bringing Chan home at the end of the night. “We’ll work it out, okay? Of all the hurdles we’ve had to jump so far, this one is a blessing.”

The door handle rattles, and in steps Jeonghan, leading Hansol, who looks much brighter and more present than he had earlier. Jihoon comes in after, with his arm in a sling, and Mingyu shuts the door after them. It’s a bit of a squeeze in the small dorm room, so Jihoon and Jeonghan go to sit on the bed to get out of the way.

“How is everyone?” Seungcheol asks, looking at Jihoon and Hansol.

“It’s just a fracture.” Jihoon shrugs, then winces with the movement. “Just have to keep it in the sling and not move it too much.”

“I’m okay.” Hansol replies easily. “I have a concussion but no serious injury, so the doctor gave me supplements and told me not to sleep for another twenty-four hours. But from what I’ve heard, I’m not going to have much of a choice about that at midnight?”

“Yeah, but to be honest, I’m not sure if we get to sleep all that much between worlds. It doesn’t feel much like it.” Seungcheol smiles at Hansol, glad his friends are healthy enough. If anyone were to take this whole thing calmly, he knew it would be Hansol. He goes on to explain about Chan and the Ball, and they take it well.

“Yeah, this sounds good- like we’re not going to have to fight medieval soldiers in a castle cellar.” Jihoon remarks.

 

-

 

They head over to Chan’s room not long after, and the boy has changed into beautiful outfit, white shirt and trousers with subtle glittery gems on the seams and cuffs.

“Woah, Hyung! You have a lot of friends!” Chan says through a laugh when he opens the door to see Seungcheol and company crowded in the corridor.

“Yes, it seems so, Chan-ah! Do you have enough tickets for all of us?” Seungcheol replies easily, stepping into the room. He’s not at all surprised to see a big Michael Jackson poster over the bed.

“I think so, yes.” He picks up a pile of small papers from the desk and counts through them quickly, before giving them to Seungcheol. “Exactly eight! You guys had better get dressed soon, it starts in an hour.”

“Ah, we were hoping you could maybe help us with that too, Chan-ah. Because we didn’t think we could go, we didn’t have anything prepared-” Chan holds up a hand to stop him.

“Say no more. Let me introduce you to my Hyungs.” He strides out of his room and across the hall, opens the door opposite without even knocking.

“What?” A voice from inside asks.

“Hyung- I have some friends here who need help with Summer Ball outfits.” A smile grows on Chan’s face, and he moves back to make way in the doorway. Kim Kibum, halfway through applying eyeliner, pops his head out and looks around at them with smirk.

“You’ve come to the right place.”

 

-

 

After an hour of rushing around, gathering clothes between Chan, Kibum, and several other inhabitants of the corridor, all eight boys are dressed and in the well-decorated main hall of the campus, waiting for the food to be served. Chan is performing while they eat, and afterwards there’s a dance that will go on until the early hours of the morning. Chan assured them he would join after the dinner, so they might be set for their smoothest day so far. The food is mediocre, but Seungcheol is easily distracted when Chan finally comes to the stage during dessert. The song starts, and Chan dances, and it’s like there’s a whole different person up on the stage.

If he had been amazed by his dancing earlier, he’s breath taken now, seeing the whole performance from start to finish. Seungcheol thinks Chan might’ve been born for the stage in every world, in every life- he fills it with a charisma and talent that’s incomparable. He dances like he was made for it, performs like it’s breathing. He wants to go around and hush every person in that room who’s talking instead of paying attention to the magic happening on stage in front of them, but he doesn’t want to take his eyes away, doesn’t even want to blink.

It’s over quicker than he would like, and he and several other members of their table stand and cheer for him, clapping proudly. Mingyu is whistling with his fingers and Seokmin is chanting ‘Lee Chan! Lee Chan!’ which encourages Minghao and Hansol to join in, giggling between themselves when other guests turn to look at them.

“Whoa, he’s amazing here too.” Jeonghan says, turning back to his mostly-melted ice cream once Chan has walked off stage.

“Did you expect any less?” Seungcheol asks proudly, heart bursting with affection for their maknae. Jeonghan looks at him with a glint to his eye but doesn’t answer.

Sometime later, the food is taken away and the music changes to a dance-appropriate mood. Most of the group take to the dance floor, bar Seungcheol, who is keeping an eye out for Chan’s appearance in the room, and Jihoon, who is trying to keep his sling away from the crowd of people. They’re surprised by Chan sneaking up on them, bringing his hands onto Seungcheol’s shoulders and giving him a small heart attack. He laughs at Seungcheol’s jolt, and it sounds like music. Seungcheol reaches out to hit his arm playfully.

“Did you like it?” He asks sweetly as he takes the empty chair next to Seungcheol.

“Of course! You’re amazing, Chan-ie, definitely the best one up there. You’ll be world famous one day, believe me.” Chan gives him a smile that rivals the shine of the sun.

“You’re too kind, Hyung. I should bring you to my shows more often, so you can shower me with praise after every one.” He smiles over at Jihoon, who sits watching the two of them. “Are you enjoying your night? Is the blazer okay with your arm?”

“Oh, just great, Chan-ah. Thank you for all your help.” Jihoon smiles for the first time that day. “You should definitely drag Seungcheol-hyung out to dance now that you’re here, though. He’s just been old and boring so far.”

“Ah, no, I don’t really-” Seungcheol quickly protests, but Chan is even quicker.

“Of course! You can’t come to a ball and not dance, Hyung.” He takes Seungcheol’s hand in his own and tugs at it until Seungcheol stands.

“Your opinion is biased, you’re a dancer!” Chan throws his head back and laughs again.

“Everyone is a dancer if they let go a little, Hyung! C’mon!” Seungcheol throws a glare at Jihoon who just waves at him sweetly with his good hand before he loses sight of him, dragged out into the crowd of bodies.

Chan is right, of course. It is fun to dance with him, and occasionally the other boys when he comes across them, in the excitement of the night. He’s introduced to several of Chan’s university friends as the night goes on, and he hadn’t been exaggerating earlier; he does have an awful lot of Hyungs.

As the night goes on, more students filter out to head home for after-parties or head to clubs. With a sparser dance floor, the DJ shifts the mood and puts on some slower songs for couples to dance to. Seungcheol spots most of his friends making their way back to Jihoon’s table, but Chan holds onto him.

“I really like this song.” He says, simply, and daringly puts his arms up to clasp his hands behind Seungcheol’s neck, as they stand together and sway gently to the music. In return, he puts his hands on Chan’s waist, which pulls them close together, close enough that he could count each of Chan’s eyelashes, if he wanted to.

“What is it?” He asks quietly.

“An English song I danced to for an evaluation a few months ago. It’s one of my favourite choreographies I’ve ever done.” Chan replies in a gentle voice, looking up at him with soft eyes. “Did you really mean what you said earlier? You think I’ll be world famous one day?”

“Yeah, Chan-ah. I really did.” Chan smiles, and this time, it’s not earnest or cheeky or blindingly bright. It’s soft, like he’s touched.

“Thanks, Seungcheol-hyung. You’re one of the most genuine people ever, really. Most people say it ‘cause they have to when I dance for them.” His gaze flits from Seungcheol’s eyes to his mouth, and he can suddenly see where this is going. Chan leans in, boosts himself up on his toes a little and brings his mouth closer to Seungcheol’s, eyes fluttering closed.

When Seungcheol pushes him away, he has a million reasons for it. Chan doesn’t know the full situation here, doesn’t know that the two of them work together and live together and are close friends in the real world, for one. He can’t know the consequences of his actions. This Chan has only known Seungcheol for a few hours, for another- he doesn’t really know him as a person, he’s just attracted to the image of him, a false one Seungcheol built for the sake of befriending dance-student Chan. There’s also the fact that their friends of seven years are sitting at the table across the room, probably watching them. Above all of this, there’s a confliction Seungcheol feels in his own chest- he actually wants to kiss Chan back, which must be a result of Chan’s sweet flirty nature in this universe, or something. It’s definitely a sign that he needs to take control of the situation again, and fast.

All of this doesn’t stop his heart flooding with guilt when he sees Chan’s crestfallen face, quickly flitting through disappointment to embarrassment.

“Ah, Hyung- I’m sorry, I think I misread this-” Chan removes his arms from Seungcheol’s shoulders quickly and goes to move away, but Seungcheol catches his sleeve.

“Chan-ah, I’m sorry, please let me explain-”

“There’s no need, Seungcheol-hyung, you have nothing to explain.” His voice is choked, and he tugs his sleeve from Seungcheol’s grasp, but Seungcheol hurries after him again, grasping his shoulder and spinning Chan around to face him, but when Chan does look at him, he finds he’s at a loss of what to say.

Outside, he hears a clock strike midnight.

 

 

EIGHT

 

The cool forest surroundings make him realise how suffocating the hall had been, in full tuxedo dancing in a crowd of people all night. He sits up and freshly-fallen leaves crinkle under him. It’s completely quiet aside from the sound of Mingyu groaning as he pulls himself up, and Jihoon sighing deeply. A quick scan tells him everyone is here, including Chan, who is looking around in confusion. When he catches Seungcheol’s eye he immediately flushes red. If he had looked embarrassed before, he looks mortified now, and Seungcheol quickly looks away.

“Everyone okay?” A chorus of unenthusiastic confirmations greet him. “Alright, everyone up. It looks like trees for miles, so we’ll probably need to walk a while to find anyone.” Seokmin easily gets to his feet and walks over to check on Chan, glancing at Seungcheol on the way. Seungcheol walks in the opposite direction to give Jihoon a hand up.

“I miss the snack buffet.” Jeonghan says mournfully. Seungcheol only rolls his eyes and starts walking, hoping the others will follow him and not ask too many questions about what the hell just happened between himself and their maknae.

 

-

 

They walk for a while, not saying much, and he can vaguely hear Hansol and Seokmin filling Chan in on the situation at the back of the group, with Jihoon and Jeonghan walking with him at the front. He’s is a little worried they’re walking in circles, as they just keep seeing the same identical ancient trees and hilly landscape they’d woken up in, and it isn’t helped by the uncomfortable boding ambience the forest seems to radiate. He’s never seen trees so big- they go up farther than he can see, and in some places the thick shrubbery creates dim patches of land despite it being the middle of the day. They don’t have much other choice, though, than to keep walking, until they hear a voice.

“What are all of you doing all the way out here? Not often we see humans on our land.” The low voice undeniably belongs to Wonwoo, but Seungcheol can’t see him anywhere, and his voice seems to come from no distinct direction. He wonders for a wild second if the other boy is invisible. It wouldn’t be the strangest thing he’s seen so far. “Up here.”

His voice says again lightly, and Seungcheol looks up to see him sitting with ease on a tree branch several feet above them. Considering the trees are so big the branches don’t start until about fifteen feet up the trunk, he has no idea how he could get up there, but is mostly relieved that Wonwoo isn’t, in fact, invisible.

“Hello, there. We’re, erm, lost.” It’s not really a lie.

“You’re pretty far from home.” Wonwoo replies, cryptically. He doesn’t know how accurate he is.

“Like I said. Very lost. Whose land is this, exactly?” Seungcheol is craning his neck up to see the other boy. Aside from a shock of electric blue hair, he looks pretty similar to the Wonwoo he knows- lean and thin, dressed in some loose, floaty clothing. The rest of them are in general civilian attire, though Seungcheol thinks they could do with some coats if the forest is going to get any colder.

“You’re on mythic land. How can you be that clueless? Did you grow up under a rock? Or does human land have no rocks left?” Wonwoo asks incredulously, and just to keep Seungcheol on his toes, slips off the tree branch. He has a vision of Wonwoo falling to the ground and breaking his back and is momentarily confused when Wonwoo seemingly hovers in mid-air. He blinks a few times, then as Wonwoo floats towards them, realises that Wonwoo has honest-to-god wings protruding from his back, between his shoulder blades. They’re so thin and transparent he couldn’t see them when Wonwoo was sat away from them, but now that he’s coming down to stand on the forest floor, Seungcheol can clearly see the beautiful wings protruding from his back, shimmering in the sunlight. When he’s in flight they beat together quickly with a low buzz, like that of a dragonfly, but when he lands they gently sway in the light breeze, sparkling in the sunlight. Seungcheol must be gaping at the wings for a second too long, as Wonwoo turns awkwardly as if to try and hide them from the crowd of boys. Jun looks as if he’s witnessing a miracle, and Seokmin’s eyes are round with wonder.

“We remember nothing, actually. We just woke up here with no recollection of how we arrived. We’ve been looking for someone to help us.” Jeonghan speaks up, and Seungcheol eyes him for how close to the truth he’s being. Wonwoo scoffs.

“Sounds like typical humans. Leaving their own out to die. Maybe you’re an experiment.” He suggests lightly, looking around at them one by one. “Or maybe a witch cursed you.”

“Ha ha, imagine that!” Mingyu says loudly. Wonwoo glances at him.

“I don’t need to imagine. Magic users like to live close by, so I’ve got at least four covens within flying distance of my house. They like to curse people when they get bored.” Wonwoo sighs. “I suppose I can’t leave you out here to die. It’ll be dark in a few hours, and the wood nymphs will be out soon. Merlin knows they probably haven’t had human flesh in a few hundred years.” He turns on one heel and takes flight again, only a few feet off the ground this time. “Hurry up!”

Seungcheol snaps into action and hurries after him, encouraging the others to follow. They almost lose Wonwoo a few times between the trees, and by the time they reach a quaint little cottage on top of a small hill about an hour later, they’re out of breath and sweaty.

“By Merlin, you humans are slow.” Seungcheol is about to retort, but instead he doubles over, trying to catch some air. “I’m happy to let you guys in, but I’m afraid I’ve got some protective wards around the house that are tricky to disable- it’d be easier if you could set them off so I can just re-lay them.” Wonwoo looks at them expectantly, and they just stare back at him. “They won’t hurt you.” He says, in earnest. After a moment of silence, Seungcheol sighs.

“Alright, then.” He walks up to the gate at the front of the neatly-kept garden and hesitates for a second before he puts his hand on the metal. Immediately he feels an electric shock run up his arm and through his body and swears, recoiling quickly. Wonwoo laughs from next to him.

“Okay, that’s the only one that hurts. The others are just defensive, I swear.” He smiles at them in a slightly unnerving way. Seungcheol can see Jihoon moving to take the lead, and he and Mingyu reach out for him at the same time.

“Not with that arm, Jihoon-ah.” Seungcheol says firmly, as Mingyu moves around him and up the path ahead. Suddenly, the path drops out very quickly from under him, and Mingyu disappears into the ground.

“Mingyu-yah?” Jihoon calls out in alarm.

“I’m okay!” Comes the yell back, echoed as if he’s at the bottom of a well. Wonwoo is cackling now.

“Now someone try to climb over the fence.” Seungcheol glares at him.

“Look, is this really necessary-”

“It’s the last one, I swear, then you’ll be able to enter.”

“I’ll do it.” Hansol offers easily. Jeonghan looks over at him and frowns.

“Absolutely not, you still have a concussion.” He moves before Hansol has a chance, walking around to the side of the building and trying to climb the fence. He barely gets a foot on it before he’s flying backwards and is sent rolling along the ground, coming to a stop at the foot of the hill some twenty feet away.

“Hyung!” Chan cries, and he, Seokmin and Minghao go running to him. Wonwoo is still laughing with glee, and Seungcheol is distinctly uncomfortable.

“Alright, that’s it.” He says, wiping laughter from his eyes. “Let’s get inside before someone comes to investigate all your human noise.” He leads the way through the gate, Seungcheol leading the group behind him cautiously. Halfway down the path, Wonwoo flies down the hole to pick up Mingyu. By the time they’re out, the rest of the group have caught back up.

“You okay?” He asks Jeonghan, who just nods and grimaces. He’s covered in soil but seems unhurt. Wonwoo leads them through the door of his cottage, and the inside is surprisingly homey. The front room is filled with entirely wooden furniture, soft throws adding warm colours to the décor. The next room is filled with jars and different shaped bottles, several pans and a cauldron bubbling in the corner, but Seungcheol can’t see any further than that as Wonwoo leads them to sit in the front room. The ten of them just about squeeze in, sitting on the one sofa, large armchair, and laid out on the floor.

“So, this might be a stupid question, but what are you, exactly?” Seungcheol starts, squishing onto the armchair next to Minghao.

“My name is Jeon Wonwoo. I’m a faerie. One of the last in these parts of the woods.” When Wonwoo sits, his wings naturally fan out so they don’t squash against the furniture behind him, but when he leans back they mould easily under him, not creasing or tearing as Seungcheol expects. More durable than they look- fitting for Wonwoo.

“Are we the first humans you’ve met?” Hansol asks, curiously. Wonwoo nods happily.

“Even my great-great-grandmother had never met a human. Our kind has been divided for a long time, you know.”

“Hey, could I get a drink?” A still-frazzled Jeonghan asks. Wonwoo squints at him.

“The nearest stream is six miles west.” He says. Jeonghan sighs.

“Never mind, then.” At that moment, Wonwoo perks up his head, as if he can hear something. He narrows his eyes at the middle distance, and he stands up, listening intently. The room is silent, watching him.

“What the hell?” Wonwoo sounds a little shaken, his expression slowly changing into one of shock and fear, which alarms Seungcheol.

“What is it?”

“Vampires haven’t crossed into the Magic Hills in- ever. I don’t understand.”

“Vampires?” Seokmin squeaks from the floor. Wonwoo slaps his own forehead.

“Of course- Vampires aren’t magic users, but they can sense it being used. When I asked you to set off the defences- my magic would’ve broadcast your scent for miles.” He sounds scared, and deadly serious for the first time.

“Will they come here?” Jihoon asks pointedly.

“They’re not supposed to- it’s against the boundary rules. But the scent of humans so close, for the first time in hundreds of years- they might not be able to help themselves. I have to set up protections.” He rushes back out through the front door. Seungcheol turns to look at the group, a little at a loss of what to say.

“We’ll be fine, right? Wonwoo-hyung can do magic!” Mingyu pipes up hopefully. No one replies. Jeonghan slumps against Jun, closing his eyes. Outside, they can hear Wonwoo murmuring some words in a language they don’t understand.

Leaving the cottage would just make them more exposed, and if these vampires were anything like myth and legend, there’s no way they could outrun them. Their only option is to trust in Wonwoo to keep them safe. After a few minutes, Wonwoo scampers back inside, shuts the door and bolts it. He looks flushed and worried.

“That should hopefully scare them off. Though I must admit, I’ve never met a vampire, only read about them.” In the distance, he can hear the noise of woman yelling something with glee approaching rapidly, chorused by some laughs. He stands and cautiously goes to the window. Within a minute, he can see them arriving at the fence, a group bigger than their own. A blonde woman tries to leap over the fence, only she’s sent flying up into the air, and is suspended fourty feet up, wiggling furiously. When the others try to do the same, they’re also sent flying up into the air, but a little less high each time, and by the time the last one steps over, he’s barely inches from the ground. They all laugh, as if it’s a hilarious joke, and the man reaches up to grab the man floating above him and pulls him down again. They do this in a chain, and soon they’re all back on the ground, advancing on the house again. Seungcheol looks at Wonwoo in alarm.

“There’s only one of me, I can only do so much against twenty vampires!” His voice is shaking. Everyone else sits still, frozen, clutching each other. Within seconds the vampires are close enough to see them through the window, smiling maniacally and rushing to the door. When the one at the front touches the door handle, a loud bang goes off, and they’re sent flying backwards. A fire erupts in front of them, creating a moat of flames all around the house. Seungcheol hears the vampires oooh and aaah as if it’s no more than a pretty light show, sees them stand up and walk through the fire, talking to each other delightedly. Wonwoo’s eyes widen further in alarm.

“I’m so sorry, I brought you here to protect you, but I can’t-” Before he can finish, a dark vampire woman bursts through the door and immediately starts walking towards Wonwoo with intent. Quicker than Seungcheol can see, Jihoon stands from his spot on the sofa and with his good hand, grabs a disfigured clay object that was probably intended to be a pot, smashes it over the vampire’s head.

“If you want him, you’ll have to go through me!” Jihoon shouts, standing in front of Wonwoo and staring her down. The vampire looks stunned.

His words jolt everyone else into action. Hansol straight up dives over the sofa to tackle a man in the doorway, and Jeonghan starts picking things up from the shelves to pelt at the vampires still entering. Chan jumps onto the back of one of the vampires, pulling at his face, and Minghao does an impressive jump and to kick one in the head, immediately taking her down the floor. Seokmin and Jun both put their arms up to defend themselves from an approaching vampire, look at each other with some sort of non-verbal agreement, then run into the vampire at the same time, barrelling him over. Mingyu has taken on the role of a human barge, just throwing himself into the crowd at the doorway, trying to hit as many with brute force as he can.

He isn’t given more than a few seconds to look around at the scene before vampire Kim Namjoon advances on him. Seungcheol punches in the way his older brother taught him and is quite proud of himself when he lands a hit on the Namjoon’s jaw. The vampire barely falters however, and reaches out to grab Seungcheol’s wrists in his hands, spinning him around and pinning him to his front. He struggles, but can barely move in Namjoon’s strong grip, so he’s held there, heart racing, waiting for a bite to pierce his neck. He wonders what will happen if he dies here. Will he wake up in his own world again, a failure? Or will he die permanently, his body worlds away from his family and friends? That’s assuming the others will even be able to leave- the curse was placed on him, so with him dead, would the others even be able to go back home? He was supposed to be learning how to be a better leader- so his failure would probably lead to nothing good for the rest of his members. It’s this that motivates him to beg the vampire currently holding him still.

“Please don’t kill them- please, you can take me, just don’t hurt them.” If he spends his last breaths doing anything, it should be at least trying to be a good leader, and a reliable friend.

“Hm?” Namjoon seems confused. “Oh! HEY!” He yells at the room at large. The fights stop as everyone turns to look at them, Seungcheol helplessly held at Namjoon’s mercy, and his friends drop their various weapons at the sight, backing off from their respective enemies. Even in this situation, they’re looking to him, protecting him the way he’s supposed to protect them. He doesn’t deserve them.

“There seems to have been a misunderstanding!” Namjoon continues. He lets go of Seungcheol, who almost drops to his knees in surprise, quickly scrambling away from the vampire. “We’re not here to hurt anyone! I’m deeply sorry if our behaviour gave you this impression.” He gets on his knees and gives Seungcheol a low bow. The other vampires around the room quickly follow to do the same. After a minute, he raises his head again. Seungcheol stares at him, confounded.

“We smelled a human scent- at first we didn’t recognise it, because it’s been so many hundreds of years since any of us last smelt a human.” The blonde vampire in front of Jeonghan explains. “Well, we got so excited that humans were back in mythic land, we had to come and meet you right away! You’re all so cute!” She squeals with happiness, looking around at them all in various states of dishevelled.

“What? Then- why would you fight us?” Jihoon asks, incredulous. She just looks back at him, beaming.

“Oh, no one can really remember how human customs go, so we agreed to just act as you did when we entered. You threw that ugly decoration and declared a fight, so we just went along with it!” She explains happily.

“I deeply apologise if we should’ve behaved differently- please forgive us.” Namjoon smiles apologetically at him. “We were just so excited to make new friends!”

“So you’re not going to suck our blood?” Chan asks, meekly. Several of the vampires gasp.

“No, of course not! We’re not primitives!” The vampires laugh hysterically at that, standing up from the floor and reaching out their hands to help the humans up. Gradually, everyone is put back on their feet. Seungcheol feels a little dizzy and goes to sit on the sofa, deciding he needs a long nap.

 

-

 

They spend the evening hanging out with the vampires in Wonwoo’s front garden, with no room in the house being big enough to house them all. It turns out to be a pleasant affair, all in all. The humans snuggle under blankets, explaining the necessity for shared body heat in the cold and other aspects of their human lives to the vampires. They in turn learn a lot about vampire customs and Wonwoo’s faerie family, though the boy has mostly been quiet since the fight. It’s only when they’re lying on the grass listening to vampire myths and beliefs about the stars when Wonwoo shuffles over to Jihoon, who is lying next to Seungcheol.

“You tried to save my life back there.” He tells Jihoon, who sits up to face him better. “Even though I played tricks and hurt your friends, and I was too scared to use protective magic, even for myself… you were ready to risk your life for me.” He can’t meet Jihoon’s eyes. Jihoon shrugs a little awkwardly with one arm.

“It was the right thing to do.” He says, coolly. Seungcheol knows that means ‘you’re my family and I have to protect you, because I love you,’ and hopes Wonwoo will realise it too, when he’s back to himself.

Wonwoo bows his head, then moves closer and reaches out for Jihoon’s bandaged arm. Jihoon flinches away for a second, but Wonwoo holds his gaze and continues holding out his hands. Jihoon relents, leaning into his touch. He holds Jihoon’s arm gently, and after a moment, a soft yellow light starts to glow from his palms, shining out between his fingers. Jihoon gasps, and it attracts the attention of the group. The vampires and humans alike chorus an oooh as they watch Wonwoo work. A minute later, he lets go of Jihoon, who looks at the other man, startled. Slowly, he slips off his bandage and sling, and stretches his arm out. He can bend and use it perfectly with no pain. The vampires lead a round of applause and Namjoon starts excitedly pelting Wonwoo with questions about magic. The boy just smiles a little shyly and moves back to his spot on the grass. Jun reaches out to poke Jihoon’s arm, who is staring at it as if he’s never seen it before. Seungcheol smiles and lies back down on the grass, but is distracted from Wonwoo’s explanation of healing magic when he sees Chan looking at him out of the corner of his eye. He knows they need to talk about what happened at the ball as soon as they can get a private moment together. He doesn’t want to draw attention to them by leading Chan away from the group, though, thinks it’s probably too close to midnight to give them much time to talk anyway. So he just lays there, tries to come up with something to say that won’t embarrass the younger and explain why he had pushed him away. Despite the laundry list of reasons he had yesterday, nothing sounds right.

 

 

NINE

 

The next morning sees them in perhaps the nicest location he’s woken up in so far. The bed is huge, fitting at least half of them on the soft mattress, and the bedroom is light and spacious. Outside the large window he can see a cityscape in front of a beach view, the sea sparkling in the sun. He sits up and stretches lethargically as the others begin to wake. Minghao groans at the sunlight streaming in and burrows further into the bed. Even the unfortunate members on the floor aren’t complaining, curled up on a rich white fluffy rug. Seungcheol hops out of the bed to explore.

They’re in a big apartment, clearly belonging to someone with money. The furniture is all brand new and spotless, and the location is clearly in the middle of some modern city, the distant sounds of human life filtering in. There’s a note on the kitchen counter in English, so he thinks probably somewhere in America, which isn’t too alarming. Joshua is one of the last three members left.

“HANSOL-AH!” He yells back into the bedroom. He gets no response, but Mingyu comes out of the room scratching his head, trying to find the toilet. “HANSOL-AH!” He yells again.

“WHAT?” A drowsy voice yells back.

“COME READ THIS!”

Hansol emerges from the bedroom sleepily, squinting at him. Seungcheol shoves the note in his face.

“It’s a note for a maid… it says she should take care while the house owner is away, and use the money on the countertop to buy herself something nice.” Seungcheol walks back to the kitchen counter and picks up the blank envelope that was next to it, and inside finds what must be hundreds of American dollars.

“Woah!” He gasps happily and walks back into the bedroom. “Hey! Kids! Those who want to buy whatever they want from America, get up!” Shouts of delight from Seokmin and a distant Mingyu rouse Minghao and Jeonghan, and Seungcheol laughs gleefully, waving the notes in his hand.

“Oh? We’re in America?” Jihoon pipes up interestedly.

“Are you sure we should use that? It’s not left for us.” Hansol asks doubtfully, appearing at Seungcheol’s shoulder.

“There’s way more than one person needs here, Hansol-ie, this person is loaded. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I’m starved- Wonwoo’s food offering of weeds and leaves wasn’t the most appealing yesterday.” He glances over at Wonwoo, who is lying very still in the bed, glaring at the room suspiciously.

“We should split into teams, then. Half of us start searching for a lead, the other half do a trip to a supermarket to find food.” Minghao lifts up a laptop he’s found on one of the dressers. “We have the internet to give us a starting point, and a pretty good idea of who we’re looking for, right?” Minghao seems to be the most intuitive about each new location, so Seungcheol sighs and relents. The note was distinctly not addressed to them, so maybe it’s not a lead on Joshua, and he should explore at the house more instead.

“Hands up for shop team?” Jihoon, Chan, Seokmin, Jun and a returned Mingyu raise their hands, and he looks around at them approvingly. Jihoon smiles a little bashfully, but Chan won’t even meet his eyes. “Well, that’s sorted then. The rest of us will stay here and search.” The shop team jump up and start cheering each other, singing about the food they’re going to pick. Seungcheol smiles at them fondly. “Jeonghan-ie, you’re on Wonwoo duty. Hansol-ah, Myungho-yah, let’s find Shua.”

 

-

 

While he presumes the shop team are having the time of their lives at whatever mart they’ve found, the home team aren’t having much luck. Once Jeonghan had taken his time with explaining their predicament to Wonwoo, the two had started to help the search, but with no results so far. Wonwoo’s mind was clearly elsewhere, and Jeonghan was breezing through Facebook profiles on the desktop computer. The house had turned up nothing else useful- it was just an ordinary house, with no helpful uniforms or student passes to help point them in the right direction.

Hansol speaks up. “Maybe we shouldn’t limit our searches to Joshua-hyung. We’ve seen crazier things than Seungkwan-ie or Soonyoung-hyung being in America.” Seungcheol looks at him sympathetically. As stressful as it’s been to face each new world, he can only imagine Hansol’s worry about his long-term boyfriend and where he might be, if he’s even okay. And he’s right, it’s certainly not the wildest idea that Seungkwan could be here.

“Yeah, okay. Let’s do a search for the others, too.” He turns back to the phone he’d found to put Kwon Soonyoung into google, but is interrupted by the arrival of the shopping group in the apartment, laden down with bags.

“I hope you’ve all been having fun resting here, while we did all the work.” Mingyu announces proudly. Seungcheol is about to tell him exactly what he thinks of Mingyu’s work, considering the donut sugar around his mouth, but Jihoon speaks first.

“We bumped into Shua-hyung when we were leaving the supermarket. He was putting up these.” He places down his plastic bags and hands Seungcheol a paper flyer.

“’Korean Pride in California,’” he reads to the room, “’Events this week: Couple’s Meeting; Discussion of Faith and Sexuality; Korean Culture and Acceptance; Finding Happiness in Heteronormative Society.’”

“The couples one is tonight- he saw Seokmin and Jun holding hands and invited us along.” Jihoon points it out on the flyer.

“’Couples Meeting: If you are queer and in a relationship, this meeting is for you! Bring your partner and have fulfilling discussions about love, sexuality, coming out and families. Snacks provided. Open to all.’” A phone number and location follows after.

“It’s like the genie is taunting me.” Hansol says sadly.

“Okay, we should pair up and attend, then. It doesn’t have a finishing time, do you think Shua-yah will just let us stay there until midnight if we keep him talking long enough?”

“It’s a rented location, it probably doesn’t work like that, sadly.” Jihoon picks up a bag to take through to the kitchen and start putting food in the fridge.

“Before anyone suggests seduction, I’d like it to be known that I’m morally against it.” Mingyu announces. Wonwoo, Chan and Hansol looks around bemusedly when the rest of the room snicker.

“It’s a couple’s event, how would that work anyway?” Wonwoo asks, deadpan.

“Some couples are into that sort of thing.” Mingyu says, with an air of knowing, and Jeonghan and Minghao burst into giggles.

“Look at that, though.” Hansol is leaning over his shoulder to read the flyer. “Organiser: Kim Jisoo. He changed his family name?”

“That’s why we couldn’t find any Joshua Hongs online.” Minghao sighs. “What’s he doing using Jisoo in America, anyway? He barely uses that name in Korea.”

“Maybe to appeal to his intended audience.” Hansol pitches helpfully.

“Jun-hyung,” Seokmin dramatically gets down on one knee in front of Jun, “will you be my boyfriend for the evening?” Jun swoons, and Chan giggles at them. When he sees Seungcheol looking at him, he says quickly,

“I’m claiming Wonwoo-hyung!”

“Why are we doing this again?” Wonwoo says weakly.

“Don’t worry, Wonwoo-hyung, I’ll take care of you.” Chan wiggles his eyebrows and reaches out to pat his hand consolingly. Seungcheol tears his eyes away from where their hands meet and looks over to Hansol instead.

“Want to be my temporary boyfriend? I’ll do a good Seungkwan impression, I promise.”

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Hansol replies. In the corner, Jeonghan and Minghao are cuddling and still giggling together, which leaves Mingyu looking around the room.

“I don’t have a partner!” He whines.

“What are we doing?” Jihoon returns from the kitchen carrying the fresh food, looking around at them all.

“Oh.” Mingyu says. Seungcheol represses a smirk.

“Okay, everyone invent backstories while we eat. There’s a lot of us, and we don’t want to get kicked out if anyone suspects anything.” Seungcheol plucks the bag from a still confused Jihoon.

“No, really, what are we doing?”

 

-

 

They find the building with some difficulty, wandering around the busy Los Angeles streets in confusion. Eventually, Chan spots the great big pride flag next to the South Korean flag hung outside a plain building, which is a pretty clear indicator of the right place.

The room is fairly big, and surprisingly full- he knew that California had a sizable Korean population but hadn’t put much thought into the size of the queer community within that. Couples of all kinds are sat around tables and hovering over a small buffet, holding friendly discussion.

“Hey, you came!” Joshua approaches them, looking soft and sweet as ever, greeting Seokmin and Jun. They’re really overplaying the whole couple thing, practically hanging all over each other and competing for who can use the sickliest pet name, but Joshua just smiles at them softly like he’s witnessing true love.

“Of course! Junnie munchkins just can’t resist opportunities like this, we were honoured!” Seokmin shoots Joshua his dazzling smile, squeezing the life out of Junhui.

“You brought so many friends! I’m so happy to see you all!” He shakes everyone’s hand, going around with introductions. When Hansol and Seungcheol introduce themselves, sweaty hands clasped together, Joshua looks delighted.

“Oh? Both Choi’s, are you married?” Seungcheol is taken aback by the suggestion, and he and Hansol quickly deny it.

“We just happen to have the same name.” Hansol explains, a little flustered.

“Ah, sorry, I got ahead of myself- it’s always exciting to have other married couple friends.” He laughs a little sheepishly. “Let me introduce you to my husband, Taehyung. Taehyung-ah!” The mint-haired man at the buffet turns around at the call, and grins at his husband, walking over to the group. Each of his hands holds onto a young girl, who look no more than eight and six years old respectively. Seungcheol has to stop himself from remarking his surprise. “This is my husband, Kim Taehyung-” Taehyung nods at them, “and our two girls, Hyerin-ah and Jeonghwa-yah.” He beams at them, and the younger girl holds her hand out for Joshua to take as she looks up at the group of men shyly. She’s got cream around her mouth and something spilled down her ‘I want to be a unicorn’ t-shirt, but Joshua looks at her as if she holds the universe in her eyes.

“Hey, I really should be heading home soon.” Taehyung says to Joshua softly, and Joshua looks at him with even more affection, if possible, like he can’t bear to look away from Taehyung’s face once he starts. “It’ll be Jeonghwa’s bed-time soon.” He explains to the group, and Joshua nods, eyes sparkling.

“Okay, I’ll walk you outside. Excuse me, gentlemen, I’ll be back in just a minute.” He picks up Jeonghwa and hoists her onto his hip, taking Taehyung’s hand as they leave the building, smiling and talking to each other softly. The group watch them go.

“Well, that explains the family name.” Jeonghan breaks the silence between them all.

“Yeah.” Is all he can respond with.

“Hyung looks really happy.” Chan says, so softly Seungcheol nearly misses it.

They’re still stood near the doorway, so when a new couple enter the room they block the entrance. The couple don’t seem deterred, and start chatting to them happily, introducing themselves as Solji and Hyojin and asking for names and how long everyone had been together. They’d all decided on safe relationship lengths, generally around six months, so there wouldn’t be too many expectations in terms of milestones, but Chan apparently throws that out of the window when he claims he and Wonwoo have been together for two and a half years.

“Ooh, you’re our relationship sunbae-nims then, we’re only coming up on our two-year anniversary!” Solji coos, and Chan beams.

“Yes! We’ve been talking about marriage, to be honest. It’s very exciting.” He lies sweetly, pulling Wonwoo against him and kissing his cheek. Wonwoo cracks a strained smile and makes a vaguely assenting noise. He’s letting Chan grasp onto his waist but not moving to return the affection, making for a stiff-looking couple. In front of Seungcheol, Minghao is turns and buries his face in Jeonghan’s neck to hide his laughter from the women, but Seungcheol can’t feel anything but disconcerted and uncomfortable at the sight. He can’t quite put his finger on why.

Joshua returns through the front door, greeting the new couple, introducing himself as Kim Jisoo again, only without the husband and children this time. Some of their group disperse away into the crowd, Seokmin and Jun heading towards the food, Jeonghan and Minghao headed over to a gathering of the more androgynous couples. The rest of the group acquire a table.

“Not to be funny, hyung, but could you act less like a reluctant teenage boy and more like my boyfriend? And you two-” Chan turns suddenly to Jihoon and Mingyu, “could try and seem like you aren’t strangers, for God’s sake.”

“We don’t have to be touchy just because we’re a couple.” Jihoon rebuts. “A fake couple.” he quickly corrects. Mingyu nods, looking at Chan pointedly. Another chatty couple come to join the table, and Seungcheol sits up a little straighter and grabs Hansol’s hand. They still need to blend in until they can get another chance to talk to Joshua.
As it turns out, Joshua is very popular amongst his gathering, seeming to know almost everyone by name. He comes back around to their table a while later, when Chan is a little more worn down from telling his and Wonwoo’s fake first date story countless times.

“Hi, guys- I see you’ve been mingling a lot tonight! I hope you’ve made some new friends today. I truly believe our community is the best support you can have. They can be such a welcoming family.” He looks around at them brightly, and Chan seems to rejuvenate under his gaze.

“Of course! We’ve talked to so many people, it’s been amazing- these Hyungs are all a bit shy, but I’ve been encouraging them to come out of their shell a little, you know? It’s always good to make new connections.” Chan says sincerely.

“There’s so many different types of people here!” Mingyu says in mild amazement. “It’s amazing how everyone can come together like this.” He smiles sincerely at Joshua. Chan takes the opportunity to smarm some more.

“It’s like Joshua-hyung said! If you mingle well you can meet a lot of new people from the community, Mingyu-hyung.” He holds his hand up for a high-five, and Mingyu delivers.

Joshua doesn’t say anything. He just stares at Chan, wide-eyed and pale. His enthusiasm from seconds ago is gone, and replaced by- fear? Chan seems to have realised he’s said something wrong, but flounders, not sure what to say. Seungcheol can’t tell what’s wrong either.

“Sorry- should I not have called you Hyung?” He asks timidly.

“How did you know that name?” Joshua is sat stock still, eyes boring into Chan’s face.

“I-um...” Chan trails off, and Seungcheol scrambles for an explanation to cover Chan, but comes up with nothing. They sit in tense silence, Chan looking very uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry-”

“Did my parents send you?” Joshua asks harshly. “Or someone else?” Something clicks into place for Seungcheol, and he takes a stab in the dark wildly, hoping to recover the situation.

“Yes, Joshua-ssi. Your parents sent us. They’re sorry, and they want you back in their lives.” Joshua looks at him intensely, searching his face for a lie. Seungcheol thinks he probably succeeded his Trustworthy Leader look when Joshua suddenly puts his head in his hands. When he comes back up, his eyes are wet.

“This is a lot.” Is all he says, slumping back in his chair.

“What’s going on?” Jeonghan and the rest of the boys have re-joined the table, sensing the odd atmosphere. Joshua lets out a shaky breath.

“I think you’d better come back to my place so we can talk about this properly.”

 

-

 

“Baby? Aren’t you back early?” Taehyung greets them in the hallway when they arrive in Joshua’s apartment. The girls are nowhere to be seen, and given the time, Seungcheol expects they’ve probably been asleep a while.

“Seungcheol-ssi is going to explain that.” Joshua says coldly. He gestures for Seungcheol to sit on the sofa and sits down opposite him expectantly. The rest of the boys awkwardly squeeze onto chairs and hover on armrests. Joshua stares at him, so Seungcheol starts talking.

“There’s not much else to add, Joshua-ssi. Your parents sent Chan and I to find you in California because they’re sorry about- er- the way you left things. They want you back in their life.” Joshua sits back in his seat, staring a little to the left of Seungcheol’s face blankly. Taehyung is looking at Seungcheol with obvious surprise, and comes to sit next to Joshua, rubbing his arm soothingly and saying gentle words in his ear. Joshua nods, and mutters back, ‘but after all this time?’.

“Excuse me, Joshua-ssi, but Seungcheol-ah here happened to leave his side-mission in our holiday out of the plans. Could someone explain what’s going on?” Joshua glances at Jeonghan and sighs deeply, running his hand through his hair.

“I haven’t used the name Joshua Hong in nearly eight years.” He says. “When I came out to my parents, they basically disowned me. Told me no son of theirs would be with another man. So I decided to become someone else.” Joshua stares at nothing vacantly. “Taehyung-ah agreed to move to California with me, even though he knew no English.” His laugh sounds halfway to a sob, and Taehyung pulls him into a gentle hug, kissing his neck affectionately. “At first I was worried they would come to look for me here. I grew up in this city. But after I while I realised they wouldn’t care enough. I was wrong, I suppose.” The group sit in silence for a minute while Joshua collects himself.

“I won’t tell them anything if you don’t want me to.” Seungcheol says gently. “But they wanted to reach out to you.” Joshua looks up and smiles at him gratefully.

“I just need time to think about it. It’s been so long, and I have my own family to think about now.” Seungcheol nods understandingly.

“Take all the time you need.”

Joshua laughs weakly. “I know it’s late, but if you have nowhere to be, you should catch me up with the gossip from my hometown. How are my old friends? Minhyuk-hyung and Kihyun-hung?”

Seungcheol gives him a genuine smile. “How much do you keep up with the Korean music scene?”

“Not at all.” Joshua replies.

“Then I have plenty to tell you about these particular Hyungs.” Seungcheol launches into some of the genuine stories he has from their friendship back home, and the mood is soon much more relaxed and easy. They talk until late in the night, and Seungcheol barely looks at the clock once.

 

 

TEN

 

The immediate minutes after he wakes up are the most chaotic he’s ever experienced in his life. More so than every day he woke up late for school, the day he forgot to wake up the other members until five minutes before the interviewer arrived at their dorm, and waking up the first day in Jihoon’s space prison combined. For the first time, he doesn’t wake up somewhere a human being could reasonably be found sleeping. They’re sprawled out on the concrete floor of an empty warehouse room, abandoned machinery growing rust in the corner and dust covering every surface. Through the rotting wooden door he can hear muted voices, but before he can make anything out, Hansol sneezes violently. Three times in a row. The noise echoes throughout the entire building and the others stare at him.

“Sorry.” He says through a stuffy nose. The voices in the adjacent room have stopped, and suddenly, the door bursts open to reveal Shownu in what looks like a dark sweeping robe, complete with dark mask covering his face. If he’s trying to hide his identity, it’s nullified by the fact that the sleeves on the robe have been cut off, clearly by hand, revealing his arms. Seungcheol would recognise those biceps anywhere.

“You betrayed me!” He says in a dramatic voice. He’s looking at them but talking to someone behind him, at before Seungcheol can even blink, another man appears by his side. Soonyoung is also probably trying to hide his identity with his orange face mask, but it doesn’t fool Seungcheol for a second. What does make him stop in his tracks is the tiger-print cat-suit the boy is wearing, complete with tiger ears clipped into his hair. “Clearly this agreement means nothing to you, Hoshi-ssi! You will pay for this!” Shownu spins with flair to face Soonyoung, waves his hand, and a nearby pillar crumbles to pieces. Within seconds the fragments are flying towards Soonyoung, who disappears as quickly as he’d come. The boys in the room duck to avoid flying debris.

“I have no idea who they are! I didn’t organise this, I swear!” Soonyoung shouts out, and Seungcheol peers cautiously around the doorway to watch the fight play out in the adjacent warehouse room. Soonyoung is zipping about the place with what can only be superspeed, Shownu causing things to fly at him just by gesturing with his hands. When Soonyoung takes his shot and runs at Shownu, the man quickly disappears, reappearing on the other side of the room. “I want to pull off this agreement, Shownu! Why would I jeopardise this?” His words distract the bigger man and he succeeds at running at him before Shownu can disappear again. Shownu comes flying back into their side room, Chan scrambling out of the way to avoid being hit by the bulky man.

“Please, let’s ignore them and continue. They don’t even know what’s going on here!”

“You can’t fool me, Hoshi. You’ve not heard the end of this.” Shownu shouts, getting to his feet and moving into the room to grab the two boys closest to him, Hansol and Chan. Before Seungcheol can even register this, he disappears without a trace, taking their two youngest with him.

“NO!” Soonyoung cries out, looking at the space where the three had just been standing, but there’s nothing left except settling dust. He turns to them, nine blank faces looking right back. “Who are you and how did you get in here?” He demands angrily.

“Where did he take them?” Seungcheol asks in panic. Soonyoung looks to him.

“He’s a teleporter, he could take them wherever he wants. Are you working for the government? I already pledged to minimise the damage I do to the city in fights, why do you think I brought him here? It’s you who ruined it! And now your friends have been kidnapped by a supervillain, and I suppose you’ll need me to save them, hm?” Soonyoung rants, undeterred by the silence he’s met with from the group. “I swear, you government types are the worst, I’m just doing my best to save lives here, you know? And I nearly had him! He was about to agree to let up on the political kidnappings and general pickpocketing, and then this happens.” He huffs angrily and crosses his arms across his chest, looking at them expectantly, tapping his foot.

“Why are you in a tiger outfit?” Is what Jihoon says. It’s really what he deems important, out of the whole spiel Soonyoung just went on, and in the face of Hansol and Chan’s capture. Seungcheol is considering giving him another arm injury.

Hoshi laughs in a surprised little scoff and looks at him. “Are you government agents from abroad? Everyone in Seoul knows who I am.”

“Uh, yeah. Something like that.”

“Treat us like people who know nothing.” Jeonghan adds helpfully. Soonyoung’s eyes suddenly shine with opportunity.

“Well in that case, my name is,” he brings a hand up to his face, tenses it as if it’s a tiger claw, and bares his teeth, “Hoshi!” He says his name with a roll of his tongue so it sounds like a growl and brings the hand down in a swipe, looking around at them proudly after his introduction.

“Dear God.” Seungcheol says, and sits back down on the concrete floor. He’s ready to go back to sleep right about now. Jun is looking at Soonyoung delightedly while Minghao stares in vacant disbelief.

“You have super-speed, right?” Wonwoo pipes up excitedly. “Your fight was so cool!” Soonyoung beams at Wonwoo.

“I sure do! I’m the fastest superhero on the planet right now!”

“Cool!” Mingyu gasps, looking at Soonyoung with rapt attention.

“Guys! Can we get back to the matter at hand here? How do we get Hansol and Chan back?” He looks to Soonyoung for answers, who just rolls his eyes.

“I’ll save them, of course, like I always save innocent civilians who don’t know how to mind their own business.”

“How long will that take?” Seungcheol asks urgently.

“Sheesh, you’re pushy, huh? I don’t have a time frame for these sorts of things, you know. Once he held our mutual friend Jooheon hostage just because he was mad that I foiled his art robbery plan before he could even start it, but then forgot where he left him. The poor guy was chained to his attic pipes for nearly two days because neither of us could find him.”

A thump at the back of the room echoes around the space, and they all whip back to find the source. Seokmin crouches down beside something on the floor.

“I think Shua-hyung just fainted.” He says by way of explanation.

Seungcheol sighs.

 

-

 

Soonyoung takes them back to his superhero lair, and open-plan apartment in uptown Seoul. Being a superhero pays well, apparently. Joshua is laid out on the sofa, Jeonghan holding a damp cloth to his head and Minghao talking to him softly. The rest of them crowd around a huge map of Seoul hanging up on one of the walls. Soonyoung is pointing out various places Shownu has established evil lairs, past, present and potential.

“So you see, they could be anywhere.” He explains. He’s adding markers all over the map, anywhere from high-end restaurants to public toilets.

“Can’t you just superspeed around them all?” Seungcheol asks, increasingly stressed. Hoshi looks unimpressed.

“I have superspeed, Seungcheol-ssi, not super-stamina. I can’t run forever. Also, in case you forgot, he’s a teleporter- he could just disappear again as soon as he sees us. We have to draw him out and give him a reason to bring back the hostages.”

“Can I ask, why a tiger? It doesn’t fit with you power set at all.” Jihoon asks, sounding amused. Seungcheol is about to pop a vein.

Soonyoung narrows his eyes at Jihoon. “What do you mean? Tigers are fast.”

“If you were going for an animal with speed you should’ve picked a cheetah.” Jihoon points out.

“Yeah, but tigers are cooler.” He replies. Jihoon snorts.

“Anyway, back to the plan.” Seungcheol says forcefully.

“What about if we split up and search the city? There’s a lot of us, we could cover most of these buildings in the afternoon.” Seokmin suggests, and quickly loses confidence when everyone turns to look at him. “Actually, never mind, don’t listen to me.”

“No, Seokmin-ah, that’s actually a good idea.” Seungcheol praises. “Twelve people can get around a city much quicker than one man can, even if he does have superspeed. Unless you have any other buildings to add?” He asks Soonyoung.

“No, but I don’t think this is the safest plan. What are you going to fight him with when he sees you? And like I said, how does that stop him from just teleporting away again?” Seungcheol is stumped and frustrated. If only Soonyoung didn’t make so much sense, he could be out there looking for them right now.

“Hoshi-ssi,” Mingyu starts, “you said earlier you and Shownu-ssi had a mutual friend? Why can’t you just go to him and ask him what he knows?”

“Oh, we have a lot of mutual friends. We went to school together. We were the only two who went to super-college though, all our other friends don’t get involved with that business.”

“So how about you give him a taste of his own medicine?” Jun pipes up. As a less talkative member of the group, everyone tends to pay attention when he does talk. “Ask Jooheon-ssi to be our hostage, this time.”

Soonyoung looks at him like he’s a genius. “Woah. I’ve seriously never thought of that before.” He looks giddy with anticipation. “This is going to be so exciting!”
“Can things please stop happening for like, five seconds? So I can get my head around this?” Joshua groans from the couch.

 

-

 

“Aw, not again!” Jooheon exclaims when Soonyoung explains the situation to him. “Do you know how many times I’ve been a hostage for your fights? I do have things to do in my own life, you know!”

“I know, Jooheon-hyung, but you’ve never been my hostage! It’s always been on his side! And I bet he’s never asked you as nicely as I have, right?” He bats his eyelids, and his eyelashes swish against his mask. Jooheon sighs.

“If I do this, it’s going to be the last time I’m ever a hostage, right? No more, for either of you!” Soonyoung nods rapidly and clasps Jooheon’s hands.

“Yes! I’ll make sure of it! Thank you, Hyung!”

Jooheon looks weary. “You want me to call him and let him know?”

“Oh yeah, sure. Wait, not right yet though- I need to get us to a place where we can fight.”

“Can’t we just go to the rooftop of your building? It makes me feel ill when you zoom me about places. I really don’t want to relocate.”

“Oh yeah, okay. Let’s go up and you can call him.”

Of all the worlds he’s been in so far, this might be the most frustratingly ridiculous.

 

-

 

Seconds after Jooheon ends his call, Shownu appears on the other side of the rooftop, grasping Hansol and Chan. Chan seems to be holding some pot ramen, the sudden appearance of his Hyungs not stopping him from chowing down on it hungrily. Hansol is chewing on a mouthful of rice.

“You call me the villain, but you were the one who interrupted our meal, Hoshi-yah.” Shownu says darkly.

“Yet you’re the one feeding guests instant ramen!” Soonyoung rushes at Shownu who simply disappears out of sight, pops back again next to Jooheon.

“Please don’t teleport me away, Shownu-hyung, you know it makes me travel sic-” Jooheon and Shownu promptly disappear from the rooftop. Soonyoung runs back to them clutching Hansol and Chan, who yelps as his ramen is lost from his grip in the speed-run over.

“Get them to safety, Shownu will be back any second.” Minghao reaches out for Hansol, pulls him in for a quick hug, and before he can stop himself Seungcheol is doing the same with Chan. They haven’t spoken properly since the ball, but he can’t help himself- the crushing relief he feels at having the younger boys back comes washing over him, and he can feel the stress leave his body as he holds Chan.

“You know, Shownu-hyung was very hospitable,” Hansol is saying to someone behind him, “he’s really good at making stir-fried rice.”

“Yeah, we knew you weren’t in any real danger. Well, most of us did, anyway.” Wonwoo replies.

It’s then that the realisation hits him, as he’s holding Chan close, the scent of his apple shampoo the only thing he can register. The things he feels around Chan- the need to look after him, the want to make him happy, the sense of protectiveness and all the admiration he has towards him. They’re not just feelings, they’re Feelings, and Seungcheol has a lot of them when it comes to one Lee Chan. He wanted to kiss him at the Summer Ball, and it wasn’t because dance-student Lee Chan had given him attention. It was because he’s wanted to kiss Lee Chan for a long time, and for the first time he had been given a real opportunity to do so, and it had nudged something to the forefront of his mind. It was overwhelming him, and he really wants to kiss Chan right now, tell him he’s sorry and channel all his complicated feelings right out of his heart and shower them on Chan.

“Hyung?” Chan’s breathless voice brings him out of his own head abruptly. He’s been hugging the boy tightly, and Chan was straining to maintain it.

“O-oh, sorry, Chan-ah.” Seungcheol fumbles, lets go of Chan quickly. He feels like screaming his newfound revelation right there on the rooftop, but that idea is quickly shot down by the reappearance of Shownu.

“Quick!” Jeonghan hisses, pulling Chan down the stairs into the apartment building again. Seungcheol is the last out, and is about to shut the door after him, but the fight currently going on between Soonyoung and Shownu catches his eye. Through the frantic clouds of Seungcheol’s crisis, he can see something is wrong.

Soonyoung is running at Shownu with the wrong angle- he was just thrown to the ground by the other man, so he must be disoriented, because if he continues headed in this direction, he’ll just go straight past Shownu. Shownu must notice this too, as he just watches Soonyoung confusedly, doesn’t teleport away like Soonyoung expects. Soonyoung way overshoots his shot and goes running straight off the building rooftop. Shownu disappears a second later. Seungcheol gasps, frozen for a second, his heart still, staring at the empty rooftop. Then, he runs, faster than he thinks he ever has before.

He makes it down the twenty flights of stairs without stopping, pushing through the urge to throw up, the fall replaying in his head. He bursts out of the lobby door and runs around to the back street Soonyoung fell into. Shownu is kneeled beside him, mask discarded on the floor. Blood is splattered on the pavement around Soonyoung’s body, but he’s still alive.

“Oh my god.” Seungcheol breathes, barely able to look at him, but not able to look away. “I need to- I’ll call an ambulance.”

Shownu shakes his head. “They won’t be able to do anything for him. His metabolism is way too fast- he’d burn through anything they could give him, and a normal human wouldn’t have survived that drop anyhow.” The dramatic tones to his voice from earlier are gone, left with soft concern. “We just need to wait for him to heal- he should be able to stitch himself back together before morning.”

“I’m… tough…” Soonyoung wheezes from the ground, looking at Seungcheol with unfocused eyes and an attempt at a smirk. One of his tiger ears has been knocked off, and his arm is twisted in a way that it shouldn’t be on the ground next to him.

“You sure are, Soonyoung-ah. No more rooftop fights in future though, okay?” Shownu says, gently. The hero huffs a small laugh. Something loud pops, startling Seungcheol.

“Ah! That’s… one of the bones. I’ll be… back together in… no time.” He’s struggling to breathe properly- maybe a broken back, hopefully just some cracked ribs.

“I’m going to move you inside, okay? You can heal in your own bed, not next to the trash.”
Soonyoung lets out a little noise of agreement, and Shownu touches him as gently as he can. The two disappear from before Seungcheol’s eyes, who takes a moment to steady himself and catch his breath, before he heads back into the building and up the stairs, legs shaking.

 

-

 

They spend the rest of the afternoon and into the night hovering over Soonyoung, bringing him water and food that’s easy to digest, anxious for him to heal. Even as his body fixes itself as fast as Shownu promised it would, Seungcheol still worries- he can’t even imagine how long it would take a non-speedster Soonyoung to heal all these injuries, and speedster-Soonyoung only has until midnight to finish, for the sake of his future self. He has to pull Seokmin away from the bedroom at one point, because he does too good of a job of keeping Soonyoung happy, and the hero re-cracks a rib from laughing. Seokmin looks guilty for the rest of the evening.

For the first time since Jihoon in the prison, Seungcheol attempts to explain his genie-test-adventure before his friend regains his true self, and thankfully, Soonyoung accepts it with an open mind. The group falls into a discussion about all they’ve seen and been through.

“I don’t suppose you have any magic healing powers leftover, Wonwoo-yah? They’d be really helpful right now.” Jeonghan jokes.

“No, but I wish I had my wings. They were so cool.” He sighs.

“Yeah, faerie Wonwoo-yah has been my favourite alternate Sebong-ie so far.” Jihoon says easily.

“But Jeonghan-hyung had a tail!” Mingyu protests.

“It was fine for a day, but could you imagine me trying to live my life with a tail instead of legs? I’m happy to leave that one behind.” Jeonghan laughs.

“You’re still pretty lucky. I think everyone else was glad to leave their world behind.” Hansol says, and Seungcheol looks over at Joshua, who looks like he’s carrying a heavy heart. He wonders if he’s going through some sort of grief for the family he’s left behind and makes a mental note to keep a close eye on him.

Jooheon and Shownu keep everyone’s spirits up, effectively taking over for the sick Soonyoung and absent Seungkwan who can usually be relied on in these sorts of tense atmospheres. When it’s nearing midnight, Soonyoung has fallen asleep from the exertion of the day, but he looks much better. All his limbs are in one piece, and in the right places. There are some impressive bruises up his side and grazes all over his skin, but everything serious has sorted itself out, and Seungcheol finally lets himself breathe out.

 

 

ELEVEN

 

Waking up in a normal bedroom in a normal, albeit small apartment, is something Seungcheol is counting his blessings for at this point. The bed only fits himself and Soonyoung, so the other ten boys are moaning and complaining when they wake up crowded onto old floorboards, but it doesn’t bring down his mood.

“How are you feeling?” He asks a drowsy Soonyoung.

“Yeah, okay. Wow, you really weren’t kidding about this whole thing, huh?” The boy says in a light voice.

“Didn’t you believe us?”

“I don’t know- that was a weird place. Nothing felt very serious in it.”

“It felt serious to me when you nearly killed yourself running off a rooftop.” Seungcheol says, and Soonyoung nods in agreement. “Thankfully, we seem to be in somewhere relatively saner.”

“Don’t count your chickens yet, Hyung. We thought we were in for a day at the beach before Jeonghan’s mermaid sister turned up.” Mingyu says reproachfully.

“I’m just glad to be in a normal, modern house. The relatively normal worlds have all started in places like this.” Jihoon sighs contentedly. “We’ll find Seungkwan-ah no problem.” Minghao, Jun, Hansol and Chan are already leaving the room to explore the apartment.

“Yes, but we can’t afford to be lazy at the last hurdle. Let’s do our best to search for him.” He gives Soonyoung a hand up off the bed, and joins in the search for clues.

 

-

 

The apartment turns up some context clues- they find out it belongs to a Kang Dongho of this world when they find a drawer messy with documents and files, but it’s clear by the thin layer of dust on all surfaces and the letters piling up at the door that he hasn’t been here for a while. The addresses on the letters tell them they’re in the middle of Seoul, but they don’t discover much else conductive to finding Seungkwan. They have no devices to scour the internet with this time, so they resort to good old-fashioned walking around and hoping for the best. Seungcheol divides them into groups and they each head into a different part of the city.

Several hours later they meet back at the apartment only to find absolutely no results, from anyone, apart from the Seokmin/Soonyoung/Minghao/Jun team, who had crashed a wedding for the buffet they were serving. Seungcheol scolds them for their recklessness before Jeonghan asks if they could remember where it was and take the rest of them there in case the buffet was still going on. Seungcheol hits his arm.

“Maybe we’re thinking too widely. We’ve searched the whole city and found nothing, so the answer must be right in front of us.” Jihoon says. He gestures to the street below the apartment window. The apartment is right over a bar, and the rest of the street consists almost exclusively of bars and nightclubs. It’s getting noisier as it gets darker and filled up with people, contrasting with how bare it had been earlier.

“We did all wake up in club appropriate clothes.” Wonwoo observes. Seungcheol hadn’t thought too hard about why their clothes had been slightly nicer than the t-shirts and jeans of the last few days, but this is an explanation he’ll readily accept in the face of no other ideas and only six hours left to find Seungkwan.

“Okay, in the same groups, let’s split up and search the street in more detail. We’ll meet back in front of the bar under the apartment in an hour, so whoever finds him can take us all to the right place.

Another hour later, they regroup with still no developments, except a tipsy Joshua, who had been bought a drink by a woman in one of the bars, apparently. Seungcheol is about to start tearing out his hair- it’s never taken this long to find one of them before. What is he missing?

“It’s okay, Hyung, the clubs are only just starting to get lively now. He’ll show up!” Seokmin says optimistically. Seungcheol is still standing there in indecision- he doesn’t want to seem at a wits end by splitting up the team yet again, but they need as many eyes out as possible searching for the elusive vocalist.

“Hey! Look!” Soonyoung suddenly says, and points to two women with linked arms walking past them, talking easily and dressed up for a night out. “Aren’t they Seungkwan’s sisters?” He snaps his attention to the women, squinting into the dying light of the day, and thinks they do look familiar.

“Yeah, that’s them!” Hansol confirms and starts striding after them. “Come on!” They follow the two women up to a brightly painted club crammed in at the end of the street, and the boys start to file in after them. Seungcheol catches sight of a poster taped to the door. ‘PERFORMING TONIGHT: THE FAMOUS QUEEN FROM JEJU… TANGERINA!’ Underneath the headline is a grainy picture of a woman with long blonde hair and vivid makeup.

“They must be meeting Seungkwan-ie to see a performer here.” Seungcheol suddenly feels much more optimistic about their evening; this can’t be a coincidence. They’ll find Seungkwan here, and hopefully he’ll stay until midnight, and they’ll all be back together as a family, happily ever after, finally. Jun just pulls him away from where he’s clogging up the doorway and two men are trying to enter behind him.

The tables scattered around the room aren’t meant to seat twelve grown men, so they split up over two adjacent tables, and still some of the members have to stand behind them. They’re in a place that offers them both a view of the low stage and the Boo sisters, who are sitting as close as they can get to the stage. The club is filling up quickly, people talking and dancing, and they’re soon getting looks for taking up tables without any drinks. Seungcheol orders twelve of the cheapest drinks under the pressure, just about managing to cover it with the money they’d scraped together from the apartment.

As time ticks by Seungcheol grows anxious again. Half an hour passes and there’s still no sign of Seungkwan, and his sisters don’t seem concerned, chatting and laughing together happily. An MC comes out and begins talking to the crowd- if Seungkwan doesn’t show up soon, he’s going to miss the performance.

“You’re in for a treat tonight, ladies and gentlemen. Her performances are known across Asia, and she’s here for us tonight with an amazing look. I’m sure you’ll all recognise this song, so please, give a warm welcome to the Queen of Jeju: Tangerina!” As the man steps off stage the opening notes to EXID’s 'Up Down' start playing, announcing the arrival of the performer, who struts out from behind the curtain into the room. The first thing that strikes Seungcheol is her big pink hair, coming down in big bouncy ringlets. She’s in an outfit that looks like a cross between a girdle and a leotard, pastel orange and showing off pale legs that are covered in fishnet tights. The crowd goes wild, Seungkwan’s sisters screaming and clapping, as she starts dancing to the opening chords, doing the signature hip thrusting choreography. Her dramatic peachy makeup is framing her face prettily in pinks and oranges, somewhat hiding her expression, but Seungcheol can tell she’s having the time of her life up there, sharp moves made stronger with the energy from the crowd. Bedazzled nails clutch a microphone, and when the opening verse starts, she leaps into the song.

Seungcheol is thrown off for a second, not expecting her to have such a low voice. She’s clearly not a rapper but her enthusiasm with the rap part riles up the crowd regardless. She dances close to the edge of the stage and wiggles her butt playfully to the crowd, who roar in appreciation. When the song goes into a vocal part, she sounds familiar to Seungcheol. Was Tangerina a performer in his own world too? He hears Hansol gasp from beside him, is about to lean over and ask if he recognises her, when the song transitions into the chorus and she starts sing with power. It hits him very suddenly- he’s heard that voice probably every day of his life for the past seven or so years, heard it grow and mature and strengthen. The voice is familiar because it sounds like a certain Main Vocalist that he’s been looking for, and it’s coming from Tangerina’s mouth.
Seungcheol squints at her face while she’s flawlessly executing the chorus choreography in her six-inch sparkly heels. Yes, that’s Seungkwan, glittery lip gloss and all, strutting about the stage with ease. While it’s not surprising that Seungkwan is a singer even in his parallel universe, something isn’t clicking for him about this- he’s still missing something vital, he can tell.

On the other side of him, Mingyu seems to have caught on to Tangerina’s identity. “Is Seungkwan a woman?” He whispers to Jihoon.

“I think he’s a drag queen.” Jihoon says, and he sounds delighted. Ah. That would be it. He’s not a woman, he’s a drag queen, and he’s absolutely thriving.

Another verse has started, and Tangerina steps off the stage and into the crowd, stepping first to her sisters and cutely singing to them, holding their hands briefly as she passes. They cheer in appreciation and she moves around to the rest of the crowd, who yell praise as she passes by them, slowly dancing her way around the room. She’s standing in front of their table as a bridge part comes up, and to surrounding delight she drapes an arm over the seated Hansol’s shoulders and sits on his lap lightly.

“Hey baby boy.” She sings, flashing him a wink before standing up and moving on. Hansol is staring at her so intensely he looks like he might be having a spiritual experience. She steps back up on the stage just in time for the last chorus, enthusiastically going for the chorus choreography and flawlessly pulling off the high note. The crowd go wild as she finishes the song with a defiant pose, hips cocked and looking straight into the audience with confidence. Her sisters stand up at their table, whistling and screaming delightedly. She smiles sweetly and comes out of the pose, bowing to the crowd.

“Hello! My name is Tangerina and I am so honoured to be performing for you all here tonight.” She smiles again as the crowd make their own appreciation known. “I have to say, you’re a lucky crowd; my sisters are here tonight, so I’m working twice as hard to prove I’m the prettiest, most talented sister in the family.” The older sister falls about in hysterics at that, which makes the rest of the crowd laugh too. “I’m going to prove it to you, you know!” Tangerina says through a laugh. “I’ll be our mum’s favourite before you know it.” She gives a sly smile and addresses the rest of the audience again. “Alright, this next song is a personal favourite, and something a little more lowkey to help the pretty boy sitting on the middle table calm down a bit. Don’t calm down too much, though.” She says cheekily, looking straight at Hansol, who does indeed look like he needs some air. “This is 'Nobody' by the Wonder Girls.”

 

-

 

Some time later Tangerina’s set has ended, and the room has been filled with people dancing to the thumping music coming through the speakers. Most of the team had gone off to enjoy themselves, except himself and Hansol, who thought Seungkwan might come and find their table when he was finished backstage. He’s proved right a short time later when Seungkwan, still in full drag as Tangerina, comes out and beelines for his seat shortly after greeting his sisters, beaming to find Hansol still sat where he had been for her performance.

“Why aren’t you out on the dance floor, cutie? I thought all the boys would be snatching you up.”

“I was waiting for you.” Hansol answers honestly. “Your performance was amazing!” He smiles wide and looks at her with shining eyes.

Tangerina blushes and smirks. “How about you show me how you can perform out here?” Hansol’s own cheeks go a little pink and he allows himself to be led up and out of his seat onto the dance floor, glancing back at Seungcheol, who just shoots him a thumbs up and reassuring grin. Seungkwan wouldn’t be safer with anyone else.
He can’t bring himself to join them out there, though. His mind is heavy with what lies ahead. He’s nearly secured all twelve of his members, and while he’s proud of himself for coming this far, something still gnaws away at him.

Not far away, he can see Mingyu and Jihoon dancing very close together in a corner of the room. He really hopes that whatever the two have been building between them will last if they all make it back home; they could be really good for each other.

Soonyoung plopping down at the table lugging a swaying Joshua behind him brings Seungcheol back to himself.

“Some guy kept buying him drinks, I think he’s had a bit too much.” He explains, sliding a glass of water to Joshua. “You can go out and dance again when you’ve drunk all of this.” He tells him, and Joshua downs half the glass in one go, giggles to himself and spits some of it out again when he’s done. Seungcheol watches him a little distantly.

“Hyung? What are you frowning about? You’ve found all of us you know, leader. You can stop worrying now.” Soonyoung pats his arm consolingly.

“I’m not done yet, Hoshi-yah.” He explains. “The genie specifically promised me twelve days, but this is only day eleven, because we found Seokmin and Jun in the same world. I’m just worried about what I’ll have to do tomorrow. What if-” a horrible thought suddenly occurs to him- “all twelve of you forget again, and I have to round you all up in twelve hours. God, I don’t know if I could do that, and I could never forgive myself if I left someone behind.” He puts his elbows on the table and his head in his hands.

“I have faith in you, Hyung. You found us all before, you can do it again.” Soonyoung sounds genuine, as he always does. “Have some faith in us too. We’re a team. Even if we don’t remember you, we’ll stay by you.” Seungcheol looks up at the dancer. “Besides, worrying about it won’t help anything. Relax now, unwind a little! Be in good shape for tomorrow and bring us all back.”

“Yeah, Coups-ssi, you worry too much!” Drunk Joshua says breezily. “Our team is like…the numbers on a clock. And you’re the clock hands… you’ll always come back around to us.” He gasps at his own genius. “Woah, I just came up with that from the top of my head! It totally works too, there’s twelve hours on a clock. Woah.” Seungcheol just smiles at him while Soonyoung laughs. It’s kind of a nice sentiment. “And you know what?” He stage-whispers like he has a secret. “Chan-ie is number twelve, because he’s your first and last.” He claps himself sincerely. “I should get drunk more often.”

“Hm.” Seungcheol says vaguely, because the name makes his revelation of last night come flooding back to him. The rapid events of Soonyoung’s injuries, Seungkwan’s prolonged absence and the concern for the unknown twelfth day had been preoccupying him, his leader instincts taking precedent over the personal issues. But if this really is his last evening with the members before potentially his hardest challenge yet, he has some personal life things to straighten out too. “I think I’m going to go and dance. Did either of you see Chan-ie out there?” Soonyoung wiggles his eyebrows at him. He can’t tell if the Summer Ball story has been passed around the group or if his crush on the maknae has just always been obvious to everyone but him.

“Yeah, he’s out there. I saw him with Seokmin-ah last. Good luck!” Soonyoung beams at him whilst keeping Joshua in his seat, who is attempting to get up and join him. “You haven’t finished your water, Hyung!” He scolds before Seungcheol moves out of earshot.

He finds Jeonghan dancing with Minghao first, asks them if they’ve seen Chan. They both say that they’d last seen him going off to dance with a stranger. He makes his way through the rest of the crowd, then scours the rest of the club for the other boy, with no sign of him anywhere. In a last-ditch attempt, he checks outside before he starts to panic. Sure enough, Chan is leaning on the wall outside, breathing in the cool night air, thankfully alone. The street outside is bright with life, but with the club’s placement at the end of the street, Chan’s face is only lit up with the dim streetlight above him. He looks up to see Seungcheol approaching and stands up a little straighter against the outside wall.

“Hyung!” He greets, at the same time Seungcheol says,

“Chan-ie!” They both falter for a second and Chan lets out a nervous breath.

“Hi.” He says finally. Seungcheol smiles.

“Hey. Seungkwan-ie was amazing in there, wasn’t he?”

“Oh, so amazing! I think he’d be a singer in any world, you know. He’s really made for it.” Chan says in admiration.

“Yeah.” Seungcheol smiles. While he agrees, it reminds him of someone else, too. They stand in somewhat awkward silence for a minute.

“I just-”

“So I-” They both speak at the same time again, and Seungcheol huffs a laugh.

“You go first.” Chan says.

“No, it’s okay. You should tell me if you need to say something.” Seungcheol looks at him expectantly. Admittedly, he’s nervous about having to confess his feelings- he’s never done anything like this before. If Chan were to admit feelings of his own first, that would be massively convenient for him.

“Ah, I actually just wanted to apologise for what happened at the Summer Ball. I should’ve said this earlier, but I’ve been embarrassed.” He can barely meet Seungcheol’s eyes and tugs at his shirt sleeve anxiously. “I don’t know what I was doing, I would never have acted like that if I’d have known. I’m really sorry, Hyung. I know it made you uncomfortable.” He worries on his lip and finally looks at Seungcheol. “Can we go back to normal?”

Seungcheol’s heart is sinking right down into his shoes. Of course, Chan was only acting that way because he’d been a student swept away by a stranger- he knew that and shouldn’t have hoped for anything else. He’d been too caught up in his own feelings to think clearly.

“It’s okay, Chan-ah, really. It’s my fault, I shouldn’t have let things get that far. I’m really sorry too.” He looks at Chan hoping to get across his sincerity. Chan gives him a nod and a small smile, and there’s silence between them for a few seconds.

“What was it you wanted to tell me?”

“Ah… it doesn’t matter now, Chan-ie.” He gives a little laugh that sounds empty. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll see you back inside?” He turns around to head back into the club.

“Wait, Hyung!” He ignores Chan calling after him and hurries back inside. He really doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.

Back inside, he weaves his way through the crowd of people to go back to their table. He’s surprised to find the crowd of boys he calls his group gathered around it.

“There you are!” Jihoon says urgently. “It’s coming up to midnight, and no one could find you or Chan. Seungkwan and Hansol are missing too.” Chan comes running up beside him, but Seungcheol is only focused on Jihoon.

“What do you mean, missing?” He asks with alarm.

“We’ve checked the whole club, they’re not here.” Jeonghan says.

“They’re not outside, we were just there.” Seungcheol can’t look at Chan when he speaks up.

“Have you checked the backstage? Seungkwan is a performer, they might have gone back there.” He looks around and none of the boys speak up, so he takes off towards the stage door, the group quickly keeping up with him. He looks at the clock as they pass it- they have a little over ten minutes to find them. He can’t believe he got sloppy this close to the end.

He leads them down the empty backstage corridor, flinging each room door open. Each one is empty, only filled with dingy furniture and silence. He feels his stomach drop when he opens the last one, which is as identically empty as the rest. He looks around, frantic.

“Where the hell else could they be? Hansol wouldn’t have let them go far.”

“Are you friends of Tangerina?” A voice calls to them down the corridor. The eleven boys turn to look their manager coming in through the fire exit stamping out a cigarette.

“Yes!” They all exclaim at once, and the man looks amused at their volume.

“There’s a makeup room through the back. She’s probably in there.” He gestures into the last empty room they’re looking into, and sure enough, there’s a door on the other side of the room. Seungcheol barely has the time to yell a thank-you before the boys are pushing him in. He runs and pulls the door open so hard it bangs against the wall. Seungkwan and Hansol, who had been enthusiastically making out on the sofa, jolt in surprise. Seungkwan, who is laid over Hansol, sits up and huffs.

“Excuse me? We’re a little busy here.” He raises a perfectly drawn eyebrow at Seungcheol and crew, challenging them, but Seungcheol is far past being intimidated by Boo Seungkwan, even if he is in very sharp pointy high heels.

“Hansol-ah!” He shouts, strained. “How could you take him away this close to midnight?” He puts a hand on the makeup counter to steady himself.

“Oh! I’m sorry Hyung, I didn’t realise the time.” Hansol says in genuine surprise, still pinned down by Seungkwan’s weight on top of him who narrows his eyes at Seungcheol.

“Who are you, his dad? He’s a grown man, you know!” He glances back at Hansol. “You are a grown man, right?”

“I’m twenty-one.” Hansol assures him.

“Good, then we’re going to go back to some really good kissing, if you could all please leave-”

“Okay, this is it everyone.” Seungcheol ignores him. He has a minute at most. Does a quick headcount- all twelve are present. “I don’t know what’s coming, but I’m going to do my best tomorrow. I love you all very much. I’ll see you back in our dorms.”

“We’ll trust you if you trust us.” Soonyoung gives him a smile. “Fighting!” The group cheer together.

“Hansol-ah, whatever your friends are on, I want some of it.” Seungkwan says.

 

 

TWELVE

 

He wakes up alone, as he does every morning, and rolls over to look at the clock through bleary eyes. It’s midday, so unless he gets up right now, he’s going to be late for his shift again. His manager will yell at him, but he can’t find the energy to care, really- he’d somehow managed to be put on shifts for both of his part-time jobs today, and he’s exhausted at just the thought of it. He groans and rolls out of the bed pathetically.

In the end he’s only ten minutes late to work, but his manager still yells at him, and puts him on a checkout even though the store is pretty empty at this time on a Tuesday. He absently scans items and takes cash and waits for his shift to end, making sure to still be polite and thank the customers before they leave, even if they do ignore him. His mother raised him right, after all.

His practised apathy is interrupted when a group of four boys put their basket at the end of the conveyor belt and start slowly unloading their items without looking at him. He watches the wine and instant noodles trundle towards him as they boys talk to each other in serious voices.

“Don’t feel bad.” The one in the beanie says. Seungcheol thought he looks like a foreigner, but his Korean is perfect. “When we were looking for Shua-hyung the first thing Coups-hyung did was send us to get food. We’ll find him better if we’re all well fed, anyway.”

“Yeah, and we found Shua-hyung when we were leaving the store, so maybe we’ll run into him outside handing out flyers for the gym or something.” The second speaker has the straightest prettiest nose Seungcheol has ever seen, and it compliments his longish face.

“I can’t believe Hyung has been doing this for eleven days, it was tiring enough finding Kwan-ie.” The one with the squishy face says. A blonde boy with puffy cheeks next to him slaps his arm.

“Will you be needing bags with that?” Seungcheol interrupts them politely. All four boys jump out of their skin as if they hadn’t realised he was there, and he fights the urge to roll his eyes. Honestly, some people act as if customer service workers aren’t proper humans or something. They’re staring at him with wide eyes like the question is bizarre, but Cheeks is the first to recover.

“Yes, we’d love bags! We need bags, yes.” Seungcheol eyes him for a second before he leans under the counter to grab a handful of plastic bags. When he comes back up, he catches the boys exchanging some looks that range from panicked to surprised to overjoyed. He pretends not to notice. These guys were weird. He continues scanning their items, and the boys jump into action to more diligently unload their shopping and start bagging their scanned purchases.

“It’s a great day outside, right?” Squishy asks a little hastily as he wrestles a big jar of kimchi into a bag. It takes him a few seconds to realise the question was directed at him.

“Sure, yeah. Great.” He continues beeping the bags of rice through. His interruption seems to have thrown the group off, as they don’t resume their conversation from before. Cheeks elbows Squishy in the side, who elbows him right back and hisses something. Cheeks huffs but looks up to Seungcheol with a smile.

“Do you have long left on your shift?” Cheeks asks him. Seungcheol frowns at their odd behaviour. Was he being picked up by four dudes right now?

“Only another hour, but I have to go straight to my other job after this.” He sighs. He’d been putting off thinking about it. He’s about to ask about their plans for the day like the good friendly worker he is, but Cheeks rushes into another question with excitement like he’s struck gold.

“Oh! Where else do you work?”

“Bar 17 at the other side of the city. I’m going to spend my whole break just travelling there.” Seungcheol represses a groan. “It’s a night shift too, so I’ll be working until late. The struggles of trying to upkeep a one-person apartment in Seoul, huh?” The boys are looking at each other far too happily, oblivious to his suffering.

“Oh, you work so hard! Fighting!” Nose says encouragingly. Seungcheol smiles at him (at least someone appreciates his struggle) and scans the last item through the checkout, gives them their total. The boys fish out a suspicious amount of cash and hand it over, gathering up their bags.

“Thank you, have a good day!” He says to them in his best Polite Worker voice.

“Thank you! See you around!” The boys chorus back, and Squishy starts giggling as they walk off, clutching onto Nose. Cheeks is saying something very quickly to Beanie. He watches them go until they disappear though the sliding doors, then leans back in his chair to wait for the next customer.

 

-

 

He arrives at the bar with minutes to spare. He’d fallen asleep on the bus, so he’d rushed off a stop too late and had to walk the rest of the way back. Thankfully, this manager was much more relaxed, and just greeted him casually as he came in. Hopefully this shift wouldn’t be too intense either. Even though he was working until late, it was the middle of the week, which meant he could probably only expect middle aged men rather than rowdy groups of young adults.

He stands behind the bar for a while, making up drinks occasionally when patrons wander over, but mostly reading the magazine someone left behind the counter. He doesn’t usually keep up with idols but reading this article about the success of a boy group overseas as well as in his own country makes him wonder what that life would be like. He’d wanted to sing for a little while when he was younger, but his family could never afford the fees being a trainee would’ve cost. He turns back to his present, real job when a mother comes up to asks for two oranges juices for her kids. He likes this job more than the store shifts. It has more human interaction and is much less monotonous: he enjoys making up the cocktails and spirits with as much flair as possible.

Sometime into the night, a cute boy comes into the bar, looking around nervously. Most of his customers so far have been couples and regulars who are sat around at tables, talking or watching the sports channel, so he stands out immediately. Seungcheol watches him as he approaches the bar and hops up onto a barstool. It looks like he’s gained his first sociable customer of the night.

“What can I get for you?” Seungcheol asks him. The boy has smiling eyes, but he seems nervous.

“A jack and coke?” Seungcheol starts making up the drink swiftly. When he puts it in front of the boy, he smiles a little shyly.

“Thank you.” He takes a sip then puts it down and stares at it in silence. Seungcheol knows that look- has seen it on many tormented lovers who come through here, trying to find answers at the bottom of a glass.

“Are you here alone?” He asks. He’d rather chat with Cute Boy than go back to the idol magazine, anyway. Cute Boy looks up with a little surprise.

“My friends are supposed to be joining me a bit later. I came a little early so I would have time to… think.”

“What’s on your mind?” He can tell the boy is desperate to talk about it. He seems like the type who bursts at the seams with passion, but it lets his emotions flood out of him too easily.

“How are you at relationship advice?”

Seungcheol laughs. “You wouldn’t believe how often people come to a bartender with their troubled love lives. They’re usually drunk first though.” The boy laughs pleasantly. “Tell me all about it.”

“So… I have this Hyung.” He starts, a little uncertainly, glancing up at Seungcheol. “I’ve liked him for a really long time, but I was afraid to tell anyone or show it, because we’re really close. We work together and live in the same building, so our lives are super tightly linked, I guess.” Seungcheol sighs through his teeth in sympathy.

“That’s difficult.”

“Tell me about it.” The other boy huffs, gaining a little confidence. “Our other friends and co-workers caught on anyway, and some of them would tease me about it, but I begged them not to tell him anything. I was really afraid of breaking anything, you know? I live with some of our friends and he does, too, so if anything were to be awkward between us… I know it would affect the whole group.” He looks mournfully into his drink. “But some things happened recently, and it became awkward between us anyway, and I know everyone else can tell. It sucks.” He mopes.

“What happened?” He asks, sensing drama.

“Well… we were at a dance, and we were having this romantic moment, so I just decided to go for it and kiss him. But he pushed me away.” Seungcheol winces in sympathy. “But the context of the situation was kind of weird, so… it might not mean what it seems.”

“Were you drunk?” He asks knowingly. Cute Boy laughs breathlessly.

“Something like that. Anyway, we didn’t get a chance to talk properly for a few days, but I could tell he felt awkward around me, and I felt so bad. So last night I went and apologised. I thought, if he doesn’t feel the same about me, I can deal with that. I really can! It’s not being able to keep him as a friend and a Hyung that would kill me.” He rubs a fingertip on the rim of his glass absently. “I really missed him.”

“I’m sensing a But here.” Seungcheol nudges. Cute Boy looks up at him through his soft fringe.

“But… when I told him that it was a mistake, he looked so sad and defeated. He was going to tell me something too, but told me it didn’t matter and ran off when he heard that I wanted to go back to being friends. I can’t help but wonder, you know?” He scoffs at himself sadly. “I know I’m just being hopeful. My friends don’t help, to be honest. They keep encouraging me to confess? They say he’ll definitely like me back, but I think they’re not great judges. We’re all super close, you know?” He takes another sip of his drink and looks at Seungcheol expectantly.

“It sounds like you guys are really shit at communicating.” Cute Boy nearly chokes on his drink.

“We’re usually great! It’s just when we have to talk about feelings and stuff. It’s difficult.” He whines.

“Are you adults or what?”

“Yes! That doesn’t make it easier, you know!” When Cute Boy laughs properly, his eyes crinkle really prettily and his voice sounds rich with joy. Seungcheol can’t help but smile in response. “Besides, he’s the Hyung. Shouldn’t he be the one coming to me?”

“It sounds to me like you’re both all confused about what the other feels.” Seungcheol explains, resting his elbows on the bar and leaning in a little. “And things are already messy between you. What harm can a confession do? It would clear things up, and whether he likes you or not, things can start to become better again. If he’s a decent person, he’ll still love you either way.” He winks at Cute Boy. “But he’d be an idiot not to have feelings for you to. You seem really sweet and thoughtful.” Cute Boy beams at him and blushes.

“You think so?”

“Yeah, I think so.” He leans back and flashes him a smile. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Lee Chan.” He sticks a hand out to him.

“Choi Seungcheol.” They shake hands warmly, and Seungcheol has to move away to serve a customer. He sees Lee Chan trying to bite back a big smile out of the corner of his eye, though, and feels like he’s done his job for the night.

 

-

 

They talk for a while more in between his work, and he learns that Chan is a dancer in some idol group he’s never heard of. Sixteen, or something. Still, it’s impressive, and Seungcheol tells him as much. They talk about how Seungcheol had thought about going into the industry as a child, but that he’d given up on the dream a long time ago.

“But I like to think that in another life, I would’ve made it, you know?” Chan smiles at him warmly.

“I’m sure you did, Hyung. I bet you could do anything you set your heart to.”

“Thanks, Chan-ah.”

A little while later, his mostly quiet evening is disrupted by a large group of boys rowdily making their way through the front door and yelling Chan’s name obnoxiously.

“Channie-yah!” One of the boys comes up to squeeze Chan’s cheeks, which Chan reluctantly endures. “We made it!” With a jolt Seungcheol recognises him from his shift earlier- it’s Squishy.

“Woah, fancy seeing you again!” Cheeks comes up to Chan’s other side and waves at Seungcheol. “Have you been making friends with our Chan-ah?”

“Please don’t mind them.” Chan says, putting his face in one of his hands and looking at Seungcheol sheepishly. “This is my group. Everyone, this is Seungcheol-hyung.” The group enthusiastically greet him and he’s a little overwhelmed.

“It’s okay,” he tells Chan, “I met some of your friends earlier at my first shift. Small world, huh? Sorry I didn’t recognise you guys, I don’t really keep up with idols.” Cheeks looks like he’s having the time of his life.

“That’s quite alright. You’re our Hyung now! We’re going to need twelve drinks, please.” He beams at Seungcheol, who decides he should get to work taking orders.

“You sure have a lot of friends, Chan-ah.” He tells him before he moves to the end of the bar. The twelve boys just about fit on all the barstools lining the countertop.

“It sure seems so, Seungcheol-hyung.” He replies with a soft smile.

 

-

 

They hang out for a while longer, the boys entertaining themselves easily as they get tipsier. At some point, his co-worker comes in and tells him to finish early, that he’ll take over the end of Seungcheol’s shift. A glance at the clock tells him it’s only half-past ten, nearly an hour earlier than he was supposed to finish. On any other day, he would be thrilled by Yoongi’s kindness, but contrary to the exhaustion he was feeling earlier, he’s been having a fun night with his new friends. They’d been singing parts of their songs to see if he had heard any of them before, but quickly resorted to just trying to teach him everyone’s names when it became apparent he had no real pop music knowledge at all.

“Ah, thanks Hyung.” Is all he can say, because it would be rude when Yoongi was here early after all. He knows how tired Seungcheol gets after a double shift and was probably doing it out of kindness.

“Wait, you’re done?” Chan says with surprise. The other boys’ attention is quickly on him, and he feels like he’s done something wrong.

“Yeah, my shift is over. You guys should come back here when you have time off, I’m sure I’ll see you around.” He shoots Chan a smile and ducks under the bar to grab his bag. There’s no reply for a second, then-

“Why don’t you come back with us?” Chan blurts out when he pops back up.

“Hm?”

“Yeah! We were about to leave anyway.” Squishy says. Hoshi, he thinks his name is. Squishy is easier to remember, though.

“Let us pay our tab then we can take you back to ours, right?” Cheeks-Seungkwan says hopefully. He pulls out a card and waves it in his face. He looks around at the twelve pairs of eyes looking at him, and can’t find it in him to say no. He wouldn’t usually do this type of thing, but this friendship group has such a good energy and connection that he years for more of it. They’d easily accepted him into this circle, and he feels like he’s known them for years, not only a few hours. He glances over at Yoongi, who is out of earshot.

“Yeah, alright then.” He grins as the boys cheer and clap each other on the back like they’d won an award. He swipes Seungkwan’s card and hands it back, and the boys begin to get their things together. Seungcheol makes his way around the bar as the group chatter to each other loudly and start heading out the door. Chan waits for him at the back of the group, and Seungcheol puts an arm over his shoulders naturally as they walk out after the rest.

They’re stopped at the door by a very old woman coming up to Seungcheol’s side. He holds the door open for her like the gentleman he is, and the woman thanks him.

“You’ve done well, my boy.” She says, knowingly. He hadn’t seen her in the bar, but she must have been sat in there somewhere if she was complimenting him on his work.

“Thank you!” He says politely, as she shuffles through the doorway at approximately 0 miles per hour. She really is very old.

“I think you’ve learned your lesson well!” She chuckles to herself, and Seungcheol doesn’t really know what to make of that. They watch her turn into the street and hobble away, giggling to each other when they turn to walk in the other direction.

 

-

 

The walk back to the dorm takes a while but he doesn’t mind. Seungcheol is the only sober one, and Chan only had one drink compared to the three-four-five everyone else had ordered, so they just follow behind and keep people from running into the road as they dance and sing together the whole way home. Chan watches them with love in his look, and Seungcheol watches Chan smile as they walk, arms linked together.

Their dorm confirms that they weren’t lying about being idols- it’s in a secure building in Gangnam, an area Seungcheol hasn’t even dared step foot in before. They cram into an elevator, and Seungcheol is pressed close against Chan, who blushes furiously. It’s pretty cute.

If he’d thought they’d been loud before, it’s nothing compared to when they’re safely in their own home. Someone puts on loud dance music, which encourages most of them to get up and start jumping as if they’re in a club. One of the members with a Chinese accent- Jun? starts flicking the light switches to get a rave lighting effect which sends Squishy into drunken hysterics. At some point Cheeks and Nose get into an argument about who is more drunk, raising their voices in pretend anger, encouraged by Chan’s laughing. He sits on the couch and watches the others get up to their antics. Next to him, the tall one is sitting with the short one curled up onto his lap, sometimes throwing in helpful comments about who he thinks is drunker.

It’s nearly midnight, and he has another shift at the store first thing in the morning, but he can’t bring himself to say goodbye to these boys. He could be in bed, dreading the next day, or he could be here, seeing who’s going to win the argument, which is quickly turning into a slurred rap battle.
He knows where he’d rather be.

 

 

THIRTEEN

 

He wakes up slowly, groggily, peering through half shut eyelids at his dark room. His dark room. The room at the dorm he shares, in the world where he’s an idol, in a group with his twelve closest friends.

He leaps out of the bed and rushes to the door, almost tripping over the dull gold bottle on the floor, flinging it open only to see Seungkwan skidding to a halt on the other side. He squeals and brings his leader into a strong hug.

“You’re here!” He yells with joy bouncing them both up and down on the balls of his feet, Hansol coming up behind him and smiling broadly at Seungcheol. From a room to the left, Mingyu and Jihoon are emerging, Jeonghan and Minghao padding into the hallway quickly from up the corridor.

“Is everyone here?” Seungcheol asks in a rush. A quick headcount accounts for everyone who lives in this apartment, and he wriggles out of Seungkwan’s grip. “I have to check on the others!” He takes off running towards the apartment door, with bare feet and in the pyjamas he put on for bed twelve days ago. The sound of the boys rushing behind him, feet slapping in the hallway, pushes him on. The other apartment is only one floor up, so he bypasses the elevators and heads straight for the staircase, taking them two at a time in his haste. He’s stopped short by the sound of someone coming down them, looks up and is able to halt just in time to save him from colliding with Chan who was racing down from the other side. A peek over Chan’s shoulder shows the last five boys at the top of the staircase, bunched together and watching the couple on the stairs. Seokmin gives him a little wave.

“You’re back!” Chan exclaims, putting his hands out as if he wants to shake him or hug him, but he thinks better of it and aborts the movement, holding his hands in front of him awkwardly.

“Everyone’s back!” Seungcheol says, ecstatic, his heart is soaring.

“You did it, Leader.” Chan says with a wide smile, eyes turning up at the edges.

He remembers everything from yesterday perfectly. Chan’s confession, the genie’s approval, how good that night had been, how oblivious Seungcheol had been. Not only last night, but oblivious for a while, if Chan had really liked him for that long.

Time to make it up to Chan; time to make up for lost time. He takes one of Chan’s curled hands in his own and cups his cheek with his other hand, leading him into a sweet kiss. At the top and bottom of the stairs, where the rest of the group have gathered, the boys cheer and whoop. When he pulls back, he sees hugging and playful rejoicing past the glow of Chan’s smile, his eyes meeting Seungcheol’s and glistening under the bright lights. Seungcheol giggles a little at his own boldness, and Chan pulls him back into another kiss, happiness radiating from him.

Yeah, Seungcheol thinks. This is where he belongs.